Budget Panel Weighing Proposals to Curb Spread of Mussels

Budget Panel Weighing Proposals to Curb Spread of Mussels

Source: Daily Inter Lake
Click here to read the article: http://www.dailyinterlake.com/article/20170214/ARTICLE/170219930

February 14, 2017 at 8:16 pm | By SAM WILSON Daily Inter Lake

Officials tasked with formulating the Montana’s long-term response to invasive mussels are working to convince budget-conscious lawmakers to spend more than $12 million over the next two years as they weigh deep spending cuts elsewhere in state government.

The Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Transportation wrapped up its hearing on budget requests from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Tuesday, and is scheduled to take final action on the department’s budget Friday.

The state wildlife department is looking for $11.4 million in spending authority over the next two years to expand the state’s mussel-prevention programs, while the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is asking for $711,000 for its efforts to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.

The substantial increase from the state’s current $1 million-per-year aquatic invasive species budget would be spent ratcheting up the state’s boat-inspection, decontamination and water sampling programs, expanding education outreach efforts and implementing new restrictions on watercraft launched in Montana’s waters.

Committee chairman Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, noted the Legislature’s reticence to increase spending while revenues have dropped significantly below earlier projections. But he also told newly appointed Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams that he and other legislators understand the gravity of Montana’s first-ever confirmed detection of the mussels in Tiber Reservoir last fall.

“I don’t know that the stakes are any higher, but they’re much more on everybody’s radar,” Glimm said. “This is a big chunk of money and it’s a lot of growth in government. Everybody’s suspicious of that, but everybody realizes this is an important issue and we need to do something.”

“I can see it’s an issue of import and has pulled in a lot of different parties in, and I think that’s the best way to address it,” Williams responded, noting in particular the agency’s need to partner more with other state agencies, tribal government and federal agencies. “We need to throw the kitchen sink at it and I am ready and willing to take that responsibility on. I understand that.”

Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs helped present the updated proposal to the budget panel. Staff from both departments have been working together on the long-term plan. Tubbs is aiming to secure half of the budget through federal grants, but said that funding is less reliable and less likely to be available by the start of the boating season.

In the meantime, he said he’s been working with legislators to create a boat-inspection sticker requirement for vessels launching in Montana waters, which he estimates would generate $4.1 million per year. Residents would pay $25 per year for the inspection and out-of-state boaters would pay $50.

For the other major source of continued funding, Tubbs and other state officials are looking to private hydroelectric dam operators in the state. He said a proposal to establish a per-kilowatt fee is still being worked on, but could generate $5 million to $6 million in revenue for each two-year budget cycle.

“If we’re going to ask our residents and out-of-state boaters to pay a fee, hydropower has to be part of the solution,” Tubbs said. “They understand that they have a role to play, but they don’t want to be the only player.”

Dam operators could face substantial costs if mussels spread to upstream water bodies. Once established, they can clog intake pipes and other underwater infrastructure, requiring more frequent maintenance of and replacement of dam components.

The Northwest Power Conservation Council has estimated the annual costs to hydroelectic dams in the Columbia River Basin as high as $500 million per year, should the mussels spread west of the Divide.

A bill to enact the two main revenue-generating proposals is being drafted up and has a sponsor, Tubbs said, but added that it could ultimately be swept into one of the appropriations bills currently being hammered out in the House.

The bulk of the expanded invasive species program will be housed within Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which already has law enforcement authority and a staff of wardens to assist with stricter boat-inspection rules.

Along with the boost in spending, the departments’ proposal includes mandatory boat inspections for all vessels entering Montana, as well as all watercraft coming west over the Continental Divide. All boats coming off Tiber or Canyon Ferry would be subject to mandatory inspections and possible decontamination, although a “local boater” program would allow watercraft remaining on those lakes to forgo the inspections, unless they’re destined for elsewhere.