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Quagga Mussels Invade Idaho


Tiny, invasive shellfish have been found in Idaho's Snake River. That's prompting an urgent response from local officials because these quagga mussels could devastate the regional economy and ecosystem. They can clog drinking water and hydroelectric power equipment and suck the nutrients out of native fish habitats. Rachel Cohen of Boise State Public Radio reports from Twin Falls.

RACHEL COHEN, BYLINE: The quagga mussels were so small, they were only detectable under a microscope.

NIC ZURFLUH: The initial phone call was a bit of a shock.

COHEN: Nick Zurfluh is the Idaho State Department of Agriculture Bureau chief for Invasive Species. The call from the lab confirmed the presence of quagga mussel larvae in the Snake River by Twin Falls. The fear is they'll multiply and latch onto any hard surface they can find, encrusting and choking off pipes vital to Idaho's top industry, agriculture, and its main electricity source, hydropower.

ZURFLUH: The water use on the Snake River is demanding.

COHEN: A female quagga mussel can produce more than a million eggs in a year, so Zurfluh's team is in a race against time. But it's still a mystery how the baby mussels got here, how many there are and how far they floated.

ZURFLUH: So the goal is to hunt out for the quagga mussel.

COHEN: So now scientists are on the hunt, dragging nets behind boats and scuba diving under the surface. Gone are the tourists and kayakers from this typically bustling waterfront at the base of a canyon. During a press conference, Governor Brad Little worried if the initial attack is unsuccessful, infrastructure maintenance costs could be in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars each year.


BRAD LITTLE: What if it's unconstrained? It's going to leave a huge mark on this valley in the state of Idaho for a long, long time.

COHEN: But it's not just an Idaho problem. The Snake River flows into the Columbia River Basin spanning the Pacific Northwest. This is the first time a quagga or similarly invasive zebra mussel has been found in the basin. The Columbia is the last holdout. The mussels have already invaded all other major U.S. river systems. That's why Washington state is pushing its mussel monitoring and boat inspection cruise closer to the Idaho border. Justin Bush coordinates invasive species policy there. He says the mussels could bring new restrictions on boating and recreation and severely impact businesses, even drinking water infrastructure.

JUSTIN BUSH: It's going to impact every portion of our lives. It will change what it means to be a Pacific Northwesterner.

COHEN: Zurfluh in Twin Falls is hopeful the muscle population can be contained.

ZURFLUH: It's a crisis, no doubt, but it's still a very manageable crisis.

COHEN: That's why the state is scrambling to decontaminate all boats that have been in this stretch of the river in the last month. It set up a couple of stations like outdoor car washes.


COHEN: Mark Dail's gray fishing boat named Pops is getting sprayed down with a hose.

MARK DAIL: Everybody should do it, and you get a free boat wash.

COHEN: He says if this part of the Snake wasn't closed because of the mussels, he'd be down in the canyon with his fishing gear or gawking at the base jumpers.

DAIL: Usually fishing or playing and relaxing or just watching the jumpers off the bridge, mostly fishing.

COHEN: He says he hopes the state can get a hold on the invasive mussels before they spread too far.

DAIL: Oh, I know what these things will do. They're a nightmare, and we've been spared so far here.

COHEN: Researchers have collected more than a hundred water samples since the larvae were found. They're hoping their results reveal more answers and potential treatment options. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cohen in Twin Falls, Idaho.


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Rachel Cohen joined Boise State Public Radio in 2019 as a Report for America corps member. She is the station's Twin Falls-based reporter, covering the Magic Valley and the Wood River Valley.