Montana legislative council grapples with funding to combat invasive aquatic species

Zebra mussels clog water intake pipes and pose a hazard to recreators. (USGS)

To keep invasive mussels out of Montana, legislators replaced hydropower funding with money from the state general fund, knowing the proposal faces a tough road.

On Thursday, the Legislative Environmental Quality Council, on a 15-1 vote, agreed to back a bill that would shuffle those responsible for raising $6.5 million annually to fund the Aquatic Invasive Species Program. But even they are skeptical it will pass.

After some debate, the committee decided the general fund and fees from anglers and boat owners would pay for the program. The state general fund is the pool of money that comes from state taxpayers.

Under the bill, each year, resident fishermen would pay $2 while nonresidents pay $15 the first year and $7.50 the second year. Motorized boat owners would have to pay $10 if they’re residents and $60 if not; and non-motorized boat owners pay $5 if they’re residents and $10 if not.

The remainder – $2 million the first year and $3.3 million the second due to lowering nonresident fishing fees – would be taken out of the general fund.

No general fund money was used during the past two years of mussel monitoring and boat inspections because hydropower owners paid the remainder of the budget.

Hydropower facilities have an enormous amount to lose if invasive quagga and zebra mussels invade state waters. Once they get established, the dime-sized mussels multiply and spread rapidly to encrust any surface, from boat hulls to waterpipes and hydropower turbines.

The power industry pays up to $60 million a year to clear and replace pipes clogged with zebra mussels, and temporary shutdowns due to insufficient water flow can cost more than $5,000 an hour, according to the U.S. State Department.

The recreation and agricultural industries and municipalities also have a lot to lose.

That’s why the state jumped into crisis mode after mussel larvae were detected in water samples from Tiber Reservoir in 2016. They also had indications that mussels might be in Canyon Ferry Reservoir.

After that, the boat inspection program ramped up to keep mussels out of other lakes and an intensive water-sampling program began.

This summer, out of 88,000 boats that were inspected, 14 were carrying mussels or larvae, FWP operations chief Paul Sihler told the committee. Fortunately, of the 1,400 water samples collected statewide, the 130 taken from Tiber Reservoir came back negative for mussels.

Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, carried the 2017 bill that got money flowing into mussel detection and prevention efforts. But it almost didn’t pass. Vincent promised hydropower owners then that they would not have to pay this biennium if they anted up for the last round.

“I think they weren’t anticipating such a large contribution at the end,” Vincent said Thursday. “This is more of a general-fund type of priority and obligation.”

Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, is a proponent of using general-fund money for the anti-mussel program but didn’t think the hydropower operators should get a pass. He told Gary Wiens of the Montana Electric Cooperative’s Association that his group needed to consider whether they would pitch in, especially if the bill fails to get support in the Legislature due to a limited general fund.

Last November, the Legislature had to hold a special session to balance the state budget and many agencies had to make cuts after a record wildfire season had drained financial reserves.

“It makes no sense to me that you wouldn’t be involved in any way with funding what has to be seen as a big potential problem for hydropower facilities in Montana,” Phillips said. “The $3.3 million is a big ask of the general fund.”

Many committee members said they expected the bill to undergo several amendments in the Legislature, just as it did in 2017. But all agreed that the program funding was essential to preserving the state’s economy.

However, few wanted to carry the bill. Eventually, Rep. Willis Kurdy, D-Missoula, reluctantly agreed.

“I can tell you as the previous sponsor, this isn’t going to be an easy lift – it isn’t going to be a fun policy to carry at all,” Vincent said. “Everyone needs to shoulder in with their full weight and force behind the sponsor of this. It’s going to take a team to get this through the next session. This will probably break every record that the last one did as far as amendments.”