Boating is underway in many Colorado lakes and reservoirs

STATEWIDE—As ice comes off the lakes and reservoirs, many opened to boating on March 1 and several more will follow in April and May. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has coordinated a successful mandatory inspection and decontamination program statewide since 2008 to protect boating and angling, natural resources and infrastructure from harmful invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels. Boaters can expect changes to the program this year due to a lack of funding to implement the program while the state searches for long term solutions to maintain protection.     

A Colorado Supreme Court decision in 2016 eliminated a primary source of the Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) Program's funding, the severance tax. Since then, the statewide collaborative program has been faced with many challenges to maintain the program. CPW has allocated internal funds and worked with a broad partnership group to raise funds for the 2017 boating season and find sustainable funding solutions. With the need to protect our waters, facilities and infrastructure from the possibility of infestation of invasive mussels, CPW has appealed for assistance to ANS program partners. These partners include municipal water providers, irrigation and water districts, federal and state agencies and counties that would share the risk if infestation were to occur.

"Although the main source of the program's previous funding is gone, we have received close to a million dollars from partners, in addition to funding allocated internally, enabling us to continue protecting most at-risk waters," said CPW Invasive Species Coordinator Elizabeth Brown. "We are pleased that ANS inspections will be curtailed at only a few waters this year, but a consistent source of funds is needed to maintain our protection program in future years."

State regulations require watercraft to be inspected and possibly decontaminated prior to entering a Colorado water body after being launched out of state. Boats coming from out of state pose the greatest risk to our waters. In addition, watercraft requires inspection after leaving a water body that is positive for any listed ANS in the state, and some managers and owners require inspection prior to launching at their specific lake or reservoir. Some watercraft are exempt from the mandatory inspection regulations, including hand-launched kayaks, canoes, rafts, belly boats, windsurfer boards, paddle boards, sail boards, inner tubes and float tubes.

"Without inspections and decontaminations, the risk of a harmful invasive species infestation increases significantly," said CPW Public Information Officer Lauren Truitt. "We have been able to prevent an infestation in Colorado and we will continue to work with the public and water owners and managers to prevent infestations in the future."

Because of the funding shortfall, ANS inspections may be reduced at locations with stations and a few waters that previously had inspections will not have stations in operation this year, leaving them more vulnerable to invasive species. Water owners and managers that find their reservoirs unprotected this year may decide to close to watercraft requiring ANS inspections this season. The state is currently working with partners to secure funding for waters that had ANS stations last year and are not funded for 2017.

CPW urges boaters to check the CPW website to verify whether their favorite lake or reservoir is open to watercraft that requires an ANS inspection, and the hours of operation if so, prior to going out to the lake. CPW asks the boating community for patience and cooperation as the agency continues to look for solutions.

"There are two main ways mussels can get to bodies of water. The primary way is by moving overland attached to boats, trailers and equipment. The other is by moving downstream, and since we are a headwaters state and there are no mussels upstream, this is not going to happen,” said Brown. “If a body of water suffers an infestation here, all downstream states could also be infested. This is why Colorado’s waters are not just a state priority but a national priority.”

To mitigate the reduction in statewide inspections this year and align with western U.S. regional priorities CPW passed new regulations earlier this year which now require all watercraft operators, including those vessels on the exempt list, to “clean, drain and dry” in between each launch. In addition, boat operators must pull water drain plugs and remove plants upon exiting the water and before leaving the parking area. It is now prohibited to travel overland with water drain plugs in place and vegetation attached.

“We focus on the highest risk waters because there has never been, and will never be, enough money to staff every boat ramp in Colorado or across the nation with inspectors and decontaminators,” said Truitt. “It is up to every boater, angler and recreationist to clean, drain and dry their watercraft and equipment in between each and every use to ensure they are not moving ANS from one water to another. Many invaders, including young zebra and quagga mussels, are microscopic and can’t be seen with the naked eye. Draining water is critical to stopping the spread.”

Invasive species can include zebra and quagga mussels, New Zealand mudsnail, Asian carp, rusty crayfish, Eurasian watermilfoil, and other plants and animals. As is the current situation in many lakes and reservoirs across the U.S., zebra and quagga mussel populations can quickly grow to the billions, clogging reservoir infrastructure and endangering the food chain.

“CPW depends on the support of boaters and anglers to prevent the introduction and spread of zebra and quagga mussels and other invasive species, which is critical to providing outstanding water-based recreation in Colorado,” said Brown. “All vessel owners need to be aware of the dangers of ANS and the small but effective steps they can take to ensure their vessels don’t introduce an invasive species into our waters, causing irreversible harm.”

CPW’s goal through the ANS program is to protect the state’s natural resources, outdoor recreation and water supply infrastructure by preventing invasive species introductions. CPW’s invasive species program has been very successful in preventing infestations of invasive species ranging from zebra and quagga mussels to noxious weeds in bodies of water in Colorado. Through mandatory inspection stations at waters throughout Colorado, CPW has prevented adult mussels from entering and establishing in our lakes and reservoirs. Long-term funding for this program will allow CPW to continue working alongside water owners and the public to keep the state’s waters clear of infestation and open for recreationalists to enjoy.