This story was updated in June 2017 from the original story in 2015.
Summary – Invasive zebra mussels are in Texas and we need your help to prevent them from entering Austin lakes. Clean, Drain, and Dry your boats and gear. This is true not only for motor boats, but even for canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, jet skis, fishing gear and bait buckets.
If you are a boater, you have likely heard about zebra mussels. This scourge of lakes and rivers has invaded North America’s waterways, ruining beaches with their sharp edges, clogging water intake lines, increasing operating costs of municipal utilities, and causing top to bottom changes to aquatic systems.
But if you are a boater in Austin, you might also believe that you don’t need to worry about zebra mussels because they are not here… yet. Unfortunately, though they were once thought to be limited to cooler, northern climates, zebra mussels have migrated south and are now infesting Lake Belton, a short drive from Austin and the Highland Lakes (and our drinking water supply). Because of the close proximity of zebra mussels to the Colorado River system, it is now more important than ever that people who love using our lakes, like local boaters and paddle boarders, understand the effect their behavior might have on preventing the spread of zebra mussels into Austin-area reservoirs.
So what’s the problem? Zebra mussels invade aquatic systems and drastically alter nutrient cycling. Wide-reaching infestations can significantly alter water quality, which in turn affects the types and numbers of other native aquatic species, including fish. They can cause recreational hardships by encrusting boat hulls and clogging motors, they damage navigation buoys and encrust docks and bulkheads, and they can cause serious maintenance issues for utility providers by clogging intake structures, thus increasing the cost of water. One study estimated the cost to the energy industry at 3.1 billion dollars between 1993 and 1999.
Shopping cart encrusted in zebra mussels after just a few months in infested water. Photo Credit James Lubner, U. of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, www.Bugwood.org
What about Austin? As yet, zebra mussels have not infested the Colorado River, including Austin’s Lake Travis, Lake Austin, Lady Bird Lake and Lake Walter E Long, despite a positive DNA hit last year in Inks Lake. However, the Highland Lakes are a huge recreational boating draw and there are dozens of public boat ramps managed by various public entities, making the control of zebra mussels difficult to manage and placing the onus of responsibility on individual boats. If zebra mussels were to enter and infest just one of the Highland Lakes, the other surrounding lakes could also be affected. Water utility intakes on Lake Travis and Lake Austin could be affected. The power plant at Lake Walter E Long could be affected by clogging intake lines. Residential boat docks and bulkheads could be affected by thick encrustations of zebra mussels on the structures. Boats stored on the lakes could be damaged if zebra mussels encrust hulls or motors. Public beaches along the lakes could be littered with sharp, discarded shells. The risk of zebra mussel invasion for our large creeks that have permanent water is minimal due to frequent flooding and turbulence which creates unsuitable habitat for the mussels.
What can we do?
- Clean, Drain, and Dry your boat. This is true not only for motor boats, but even for canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards, jet skis, fishing gear and bait buckets. Every time you leave a water body, your boat must be cleaned off, with water at least 140 degrees F, drained thoroughly from the motor, bilge, live wells, and bait buckets, and then dried. It is recommended that boats and trailers be dried an entire week before entering another body of water. Not only is it the right thing to do for our rivers, lakes, and streams, but it is also a class C misdemeanor to possess or transport zebra mussels, as well as other invasive aquatic species in Texas (hydrilla, anyone?) Please visit texasinvasives.org/zebramussels/ for more information on the proper cleaning and draining of boats.
- Report it – Please report any new sightings to help track and manage this species.
- Spread the word – Tell your friends and family about invasive species. Request or download educational materials and share these videos.
- Join a Citizen Scientist program – Help track a wide variety of invasive plants and animals and learn more about Austin issues.