BELTON — Beginning July 1, boaters across Texas will be required to drain their watercrafts to help fight the spread of invasive zebra mussels.
Commissioners for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department approved a proposal on Thursday to expand the drain and dry requirements across the state, department spokesman Brian Van Zee said.
The new regulations, which require that all boats operating on public fresh water be drained before leaving or approaching a lake or river, is just the latest move in Texas’ ongoing struggle with zebra mussels.
Protecting river basins
In January, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to expand the rules requiring all boats operating on public water be drained after use to include 30 counties throughout North and Central Texas.
Those regulations, which went into effect March 24, were aimed at protecting the Trinity, Brazos, Colorado and Guadalupe river basins, all of which are traversed by Interstate 35.
It is a Class C misdemeanor statewide to possess or transport zebra mussels, which are native to Eurasia and were first discovered in U.S. waterways in 1988.
The mussels were first confirmed in Texas in Lake Texoma in 2009.
Fines for violating the regulations can range from $25 to $500.
“If you are found carrying water to or from a lake, you could be cited,” said Billy Champlin, a game warden with Texas Parks & Wildlife.
The invasive mussels can cling to any hard underwater surface and can clog pipes and damage boat motors. They have spread quickly since they were first discovered.
Late last year, the mussels were found in Belton Lake — the first time zebra mussels were documented in the Brazos River Basin, nearly 200 miles south of where they had been found previously in Texas.
Introduced in 2012
Based on the size of the mussels, Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists surmised they had been introduced to the lake sometime in 2012.
In a January interview, Ronnie Bruggman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and lake manager for Belton Lake and Stillhouse Hollow Lake, said the mussels have colonized seven different locations throughout Belton Lake.
In the intervening months, the mussels have spread throughout the lake.
“Basically everywhere we stopped to look for them, we found them,” Van Zee said. The growth in the population is expected to lead to increased maintenance costs for the municipalities and individuals who rely on the lake.
“The cost doesn’t just get passed on to those who recreate on the lake,” Van Zee said. “We all have to pay our water bills.”
Because the mussels have no natural predators, their colonies build up and over time that buildup can put stress on submerged metal and concrete surfaces, Bruggman said in January.
Despite the severity of the problem, Texas Parks and Wildlife has remained responsive to the needs of the community.
The regulations that were implemented in March had been tweaked after department staff met with representatives from Texas’ angler community, Ken Kurzawski, a Texas Parks & Wildlife spokesman who specializes in zebra mussel issues, said at the time.
The rules were modified based on public comment to allow anglers participating in a fishing tournament confined to one body of water to transport live fish in water from that body to an identified weigh-in location, provided all water is drained and properly disposed of before leaving that location.
Anglers will be required to possess documentation provided by tournament organizers that would identify them as participants in the tournament, Kurzawski said.
Movement from one access point to another on the same lake during the same day does not require draining.
The rules also make exceptions for governmental activities and emergencies, and marine sanitary systems are not covered by the regulations.
Not all Texas lakes have the proper conditions to allow for a sustaining population. Lakes with low calcium levels, for example, and high water temperatures don’t support the mollusk.
Belton Lake, however, is an ideal breeding ground for the species, said David Britton, an aquatic invasive species expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“They love calcium carbonate and the water temperature gets up to the top of their thermal range but never exceeds it,” Britton said, “which means that if they get in, they are impossible to get rid of.”
As authorities studied the migration of the mussels through the interconnected waterways of the Mississippi River watershed there was some hope that they wouldn’t be able to survive in Texas.
“We thought Texas would be safe because of our high water temperatures and unique water quality,” Britton said. “We were wrong.”