Mussel-infested boat stopped at Lake Mendocino

A specially trained dog named Noah is receiving well-deserved praise after preventing a mussel-infested watercraft from launching Saturday in Lake Mendocino - a frighteningly close call that public officials say underscores the need for long-delayed, full-time measures to protect regional reservoirs and critical infrastructure from exposure to the destructive organisms.

The blond Labrador retriever is one of several mussel-sniffing dogs deployed at lakes Sonoma and Mendocino on summer weekends to suss out tiny quagga or zebra mussels - related species of thumbnail-sized bivalves that, once introduced, reproduce in such abundance they can quickly wreak havoc on lakes or reservoirs.

It’s the first time since the dogs came into use in the region five years ago that one of the mussels has been detected, a result Sonoma County Water Agency spokesman Brad Sherwood termed “bittersweet.”

“It was bad news that we found mussels,” Sherwood said Sunday, “but it was good news that we found them.”

Extremely lucky, as well - “a big wake-up call,” Mendocino County Supervisor Carre Brown said.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams at the two reservoirs, has $725,000 in county and state startup funding set aside for a mussel inspection and prevention program that has been in development since at least 2014.

But it has yet to implement a plan, prompting what state Sen. Mike McGuire described as “growing frustration” among public officials and stakeholders.

“Thank goodness for Noah the mussel-sniffing dog,” said McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “He saved the day over the weekend, but we need permanent protection.”

The Sonoma County Water Agency has contracted with Central Valley-based Mussel Dogs to provide a bridge to a more permanent program, but the boat easily could have launched when the Noah and his colleagues were off duty, Sherwood said.

The dogs only work during the warm months of the year and then only three days a week, when the boat ramps are at their busiest, sniffing around arriving vessels and trailers for the scent of the crescent-shaped shellfish or their microscopic juvenile form, when they are called veligers.

The 2018 program just started Memorial Day weekend, so Noah and his handler, Lisa Cheli, were on Day 4 of this year’s season when a large group of dads and their daughters arrived at Lake Mendocino to camp and ply the waters of the reservoir in three boats they towed north from the Bay Area, including one borrowed from a Marin County resident, Cheli said.

It’s still unclear where or when the boat was last launched, but it was wet when it came through the boat ramp line at Lake Mendocino around 9:30 a.m. Saturday, and Noah immediately hit on a problem.

Once she looked for herself, Cheli said, she was shocked to find what local officials had long feared.

Mussels were visible on the transom, the motor mount and in the thru-hull fittings, among other places, she said.

A state Fish and Wildlife warden and many others who responded, including Sherwood, identified the mollusks as one of the two related invasive species, though a Fish and Wildlife biologist will make the final determination, officials said.

The two mussel species, native to eastern Europe and neighboring countries, arrived in California a decade ago after spreading across the United States beginning in 1989, with catastrophic results in places like the Great Lakes and Lake Mead.

They have since spread to 43 California water bodies, reaching as far north as San Benito County.

Microscopic in juvenile form, they travel easily in ballast water, live bait, mud and with aquatic plant life, and can survive outside of water for five days in warm weather and much longer when it’s cold.

Once mature, they leave their free-floating state and begin clinging to any exposed surface, encrusting watercraft and motor parts, as well as dams, turbines and water distribution pipes.

The females produce 5 million eggs in their lifetimes, spawning infestations that transform native ecological systems and clog or destroy machinery.

“If introduced into Lake Mendocino,” Sherwood said, “the mussels could attach themselves to any and all infrastructure in the lake, so that means dam infrastructure, hydro infrastructure, fishery hatchery infrastructure, recreational boats. The shoreline would become unusable because these things just multiply by the millions per year. Further, they would essentially ruin the ecosystem for fish and, yes, they can survive in river systems so they could potentially spread into the Russian River watershed.”

Lake County developed a robust mussel-prevention program 10 years ago to protect its tourism economy. It includes mandatory risk assessments on up to 17,000 vessels each year, inspections and operation of three county-owned decontamination stations, including one in Lakeport, where the boat from Lake Mendocino was taken, said Mark Miller, who coordinates the program for the Lake County Water Resources Department.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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