The effort to prevent an invasive species of mussels from getting into Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, which could result in the lakes being closed to all recreation, began this weekend with an educational campaign aimed at boaters.

"We should be able to keep this lake and others mussel-free for a long time," said Sonoma County sheriff's Sgt. Ed Hoener. "If we can keep them out entirely, time will tell."

Hoener and two other deputies were stopping boaters on Lake Sonoma on Sunday, handing out brochures that described the threat and the efforts to keep the mussels from spreading.

Boaters were also told that Sonoma County is one of a number of North Coast counties that are putting together a mandatory boat inspection program that could take effect next year.

That was received with a mixed reaction.

"It would be inconvenient, I would rather have some kind of education program," said Daniel Stewart of Santa Rosa, who said he uses the lake six to 10 times a year and is very aware of the mussel threat.

Bass fisherman Charles Delight of Sacramento said an inspection program was acceptable, as long as it was set up properly and didn't cause delays getting on the water.

"I'm all for it, anything to keep it from spreading," Delight said.

The invasive crustaceans are zebra and quagga mussels, which are infecting some rivers and lakes in Nevada and Southern California.

The mussels are the size of a pinhead as juveniles and can grow to be an inch and a half as adults. They cling to boat hulls and docks, clog pipes and can cause boat engines to overheat.

They can live in the water in boat engines or in bilges, which is how they are transported to other lakes.

As filter feeders, the mussels deplete the oxygen in the water, causing other fisheries to collapse, said Ron Smith, invasive species program coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Most zebra mussels have been found in San Diego County, in lakes fed by the Colorado River aqueduct. A quagga mussel has been found in San Justo Reservoir in San Benito County, which has not been closed to recreation.

So far they have not been found in either Lake Sonoma or Lake Mendocino, nor in Clear Lake.

"It will remain a threat from this point on; it is something that will not go away until they come up with some way to eradicate it," Smith said.

"The only way to deal with it is to have inspection programs in place, and some quarantine programs."

Sonoma County is joining with Mendocino and Humboldt counties and hopes to also include Marin, Napa and Solano in establishing an inspection program.

It would require an annual inspection, from which boat owners would get stickers declaring the craft safe.

Boats would also be tied to their trailers with a band that would be removed and replaced each time it was at Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino.

If the band is broken, which indicates it may have been in some other at-risk lake, the boat would be re-inspected.

In existing programs, the inspection fees are from $5 to $10, said Brad Sherwood, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency, which is leading the program for Sonoma County.

"It will help keep Lake Sonoma open to boating recreation," Sherwood said. "If the lake gets infested, all boating recreation could be prohibited, the state could come in and shut it down, and the same goes for Lake Mendocino."

Since Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino both release water into the Russian River, it too would be infected, as would the hatchery for endangered coho salmon at the foot of Warm Springs Dam.

Clear Lake already has an inspection program run by the county's department of water resources, which requires boats be screened before they can be put into the lake.

If boats are in Clear Lake without a sticker signifying they passed the inspection, the owner receives a misdemeanor citation with a $1,000 fine.

"We cannot do it on our own, we have got to work together as a community of northern counties," said Caroline Ruttan, the invasive species program coordinator. "If one of them doesn't do it, it will get infected and if they are close to us, we will probably get infected."

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.