DEER CREEK RESERVOIR — If a prolific, Russian invader about the size of a thumbnail gets entrenched in the waters of this mountain reservoir and the Wasatch Front's key water delivery system, authorities say containment costs would exceed $50 million and water supplies would be in jeopardy.
Against this grim backdrop, the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are embarking on an aggressive three-year round of water sampling to determine if the invasive quagga mussel has infested Deer Creek Reservoir.
On Thursday, the agencies demonstrated those water sampling techniques as well as boat decontamination procedures in a public outreach campaign aimed at increasing awareness over the severity of the problem.
"Boaters can be our best asset," said Jordan Nielson, aquatic invasive species manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "They can do more work and a better job than our technicians on the ground."
The fear of a probable infestation was stoked last fall when routine sampling detected the presence of five juvenile quagga mussels, or "veligers." Authorities could not determine if the microscopic mollusks were dead or alive, leading to uncertainty over the extent of the threat.
"We are crossing our fingers they are not in Deer Creek, but we are being vigilant," said Todd Stoney, river basin planning chief with the Utah Division of Water Resources.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources will take water samples in 15 different locations at least once a month for the next three years — testing that will be augmented by sampling carried out by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Deer Creek is under a contamination closure order, meaning all boaters, paddlers, anglers and other water recreationers must undergo strict decontamination practices to ensure they do not inadvertently spread the invasive species to another water body.
Infestation of the quagga and zebra mussels in U.S. waterways has been a financial nightmare for a swath of industries since the Russian native was first discovered in the Great Lakes region in 1988. Congressional researchers estimate the infestation in the Great Lakes area cost the power industry $3.1 billion alone over a six-year period.
The mollusks have now spread to 752 lakes, hitching rides on unsuspecting carriers such as barges, propellers and other water-related equipment.
An adult female quagga reproduces several times a year and can have as many as a million offspring.
The quagga will attach to any semi-porous surface and can rapidly clog pipelines and other water infrastructure, Nielson said.
Utah's only active and confirmed infested body of water is Lake Powell. Electric Lake and Red Fleet were both suspected of being contaminated, but have been declared quagga-free.
An adult quagga was found attached to a dock at Sand Hollow, but three years of testing has not revealed an infestation there.
Stoney said combatting an infestation in Utah has been a top priority for nearly a decade.
"It is a big concern," he said, adding that an analysis of the quagga threat revealed that an infestation of the Central Utah Project — of which Deer Creek is a part — would cost upwards of $50 million to contain and pose a nightmare for the chief water delivery system along the Wasatch Front.
"The warning lights start to shine a little brighter and the concern goes up," Stoney said.
A special task force in Idaho conducted an extensive survey of probable impacts there — down to golf courses and costs to individual boaters — looking at risks to a system that includes 86 dams, 26 hydropower facilities and 100 drinking water systems. The probe, done in 2009, put costs of an infestation at close to $95 million.
Western states with shared water bodies such as Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona collaborate on mussel inspection stations for boaters and are increasing enforcement campaigns.
Utah's fight against the quagga is funded at $3 million, but a new $10 fee assessed on boater registrations will add another $700,000 to the pot.
"The department and its divisions, state parks and wildlife resources, are committed to fighting quagga and being diligent about our testing and decontamination processes," said Nathan Schwebach, spokesman for the Utah Department of Natural Resources. "We ask for the public's support and patience."