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Are quagga-infested boats risking northern Utah's water supply?

SALT LAKE CITY — State officials say boaters are trying to launch quagga-infested vessels at chief water sources for the Wasatch Front, including Deer Creek and Jordanelle reservoirs, which puts billions in infrastructure at risk.

So far this year, inspectors with the Utah Department of Natural Resources found 121 boats contaminated with the mussels attempting to launch at Utah waterways other than Lake Powell, compared to fewer than 10 that were quarantined in 2017.

“The quagga situation at Lake Powell has worsened. If you boat at Lake Powell it’s very likely your boat has quagga mussels on it,” said Nathan Owens, coordinator of the department's Aquatic Invasive Species Program.

A person walks on quagga mussels at Lake Powell.
A person walks on quagga mussels at Lake Powell.
Devan Chavez, Utah State Parks

"With more mussels in the lake and lower water levels, more boaters have mussels attached to their vessels than in past years. Our techs are regularly finding them on and in boats that have only been in Lake Powell for a day or two — something we haven’t experienced in the past," Owens said.

Quagga are filter feeders, barely the size of a thumbnail, that alter the ecological food chain and clog intake valves and other infrastructure of dams.

They are a threat at Hoover Dam, invading the pipes that are used to cool the massive turbines. The quagga, from Europe and Asia, were first found at Lake Mead in 2007 and have infested Lake Powell.

Utah’s inspection and decontamination efforts are surpassing those of years past. As of July 30, program technicians and personnel had inspected more than 144,000 watercraft statewide. Of those, 4,700 required decontamination. By comparison, Utah performed 130,000 inspections and 4,400 decontaminations during the same period last year.

More than 47,000 boats were inspected this year as they left Lake Powell in a joint program with the National Park Service.

From April to October, the department also samples 45 of the state's high-priority lakes and waterways to determine the presence of quagga.

Although Deer Creek experienced a scare several years ago, it has since been declared quagga free.

An aquatic invasive species interdiction specialist inpsects a boat at Lake Powell.
An aquatic invasive species interdiction specialist inpsects a boat at Lake Powell.
Devan Chavez, Utah State Parks

As of July, all other water bodies have tested negative for quagga.

If boaters have been to Lake Powell, they must decontaminate their vessel before entering another waterway, officials note.

With the evolving situation at Lake Powell, technicians are frequently finding mussels in sea strainers and attached to anchors. As a result, the department is strongly encouraging boaters to have their boats decontaminated before leaving Lake Powell. If decontamination there is not possible, visit stdofthesea.utah.gov to find the location on your route of travel or near your place of residence.

For those who choose to clean their own boat, inspect the anchor and sea strainer, flush and inspect its cooling intake or water system, and pull all bilge plugs. For vessels with ballast tanks, inboard motors or other raw water systems (A/C, shower), the required dry time is 30 days.