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Mussels may capitalize on buck passing 

While SLO and Monterey counties debate who should pay to protect local waters against parasitic mussels, Lake Nacimiento is nearly defenseless

A plague is slowly descending on the lakes, streams, and rivers of the United States, sparking a brutal conflict between governments and the tiny, infernal creatures that grow no larger than a quarter. Unlike popular fictional aquatic villains—giant, prehistoric piranhas in 3-D, anyone?—Quagga and Zebra mussels have invaded waterways from New York State to Southern California and are causing billions of dollars of real-life damage.

These creatures, which fornicate like mad, breed accordingly, and wipe out native species, have begun to threaten the lakes of San Luis Obispo County. On most fronts, the fight to preserve local waters seems to be going well—with the exception of Lake Nacimiento, the county’s largest lake and soon-to-be new source of drinking water for tens of thousands. Though the lake is located in SLO County, Monterey County controls the actual water and is responsible for maintaining and regulating the surrounding parkland.

This unique arrangement has sparked a spirited game of pass the buck between the two county governments and has left the lake vulnerable to an onslaught of mussels. The potential invasion could kill off many of the lake’s native species and potentially lead to the demise of the $176 million-dollar Nacimiento Water Project.

“Economically, [a mussel infestation] will devastate the project,” said John R. Hollenbeck, manager of the Nacimiento project. “We could run it, but the operating and maintenance costs would go way up.”

Native to the Dnieper River drainage basin in the Ukraine, Quagga and Zebra mussels first showed up in the Great Lakes in September 1989, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. During the ’90s some of the mussels moved down the Mississippi River and have since come to dominate many of the waterways east of the Rocky Mountains. Quagga mussels were discovered in Lake Mead in 2007 and have now spread to more than 30 California lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

Mussels are jumping from river to lake by attaching themselves to the bottom of boats where they cling to the cracks and crevices of engines and rudders. When they’re young, the mussels are often so small they can’t be seen by the naked eye; their texture is like sandpaper against exploring palms and fingers. Boats exposed to water inhabited by the creatures can be decontaminated if they’re washed, dried, and left in the open air.

SLO and Monterey counties are currently mussel free, but nearby lakes to the north and south are becoming increasingly infested. Orange and Riverside counties have seven lakes and reservoirs inundated with mussels, and San Justo Lake in San Benito County was completely shut down because of infestation.

Other SLO County lakes are considered fairly secure from the mussels due to extensive inspections and certification programs; boats must be deemed free of mussels before they’re allowed to enter. Lake Nacimiento, however, is the problem child in the county’s defenses. Officials from both counties met in January to hash out an anti-mussel strategy. As is often the case during difficult economic times, money was the stumbling block.

Accounts differ as to what happened at the meeting. Both sides blame the other for the break down, though they both agree that $500,000 was the rough minimum needed to start securing a solid defense at the lake.

Frank Mecham, SLO county supervisor and Nacimiento Project Commissioner, said a budget was established by both sides, but Monterey County representatives said they “wanted to reconsider,” and the two counties haven’t had any substantial discussions since then.

“They didn’t seem as interested,” Mecham said. “We talked with their park and recreation people, but there was not a lot of interest on their part.”

Dave Romero, San Luis Obispo mayor and also a Nacimiento Project Commissioner, agreed that the Monterey County representatives weren’t very interested in spending the money needed to secure the lake.

“They didn’t do anything,” he said. “They wanted to study it, and they said they didn’t have the finances.”

Romero, county officials, and lakefront property owners express frustration over their long and unsuccessful efforts to get Monterey County officials interested in contributing more resources to the fight.

“How long can they stonewall?” Romero asked. “I guess they’ll keep doing that until they get some money from somewhere else.”

In fact, most of Monterey County’s existing anti-mussel efforts have come from a California Department of Fish and Game grant. According to Casey Nielson, Monterey County managing parks ranger, the lake has had boat inspections since Memorial Day. College students have been inspecting boats at public boat ramps, and boat owners are questioned when they come through the gates. Nielson conceded that his county’s program isn’t perfect: the inspectors only work Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and the program will end Sept. 15.

“I don’t need to tell you how difficult it is to put together a new program in this financial climate,” Nielsen said. “The program will be reevaluated after that.”

Both counties are strapped financially and scrambling for money to deal with the problem. SLO County has taken some money from the water project, which is running under budget, to pay for mussel-prevention efforts. A large “Don’t move a Mussel” billboard confronts potential boaters on Highway 101 in Atascadero. SLO County has also worked on educating private ramp owners so no invaders slip into the lake on their land.

Still, some boaters are oblivious to the high stakes involved when they lake hop with their craft. New Times found boaters from Southern California posting their travel plans on a boating website, and they openly discussed taking their vessels from mussel-infected areas to Lake Nacimiento.

Monterey County Supervisor Simón Salinas acknowledged that there have been disagreements between the two counties, but said the problems have been “at the staff level” and what happened at the January meeting “never came back to us.” He said there is a great need for an adequate defense of Lake Nacimiento, but funding has to come from the state and national levels.

Salinas added that he’d been speaking to his state and congressional representatives, trying to educate them about the problem in the hope that they’ll understand its gravity and provide money to fight the mussel scourge. And he admits the two counties need to collaborate to deal with the threat.

“I think this needs to be a cooperative effort,” Salinas said. “We should be getting back to this. Maybe you can stir the issue by writing this article.”

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached a rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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