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Idaho needs strong borders to protect our public waterways

Guest Opinion

Guest Opinion

Guest Opinion

A story broke this month about a boat being stopped at the Washington-Idaho border. At first blush, it might seem like an odd event to draw news coverage. However, it wasn’t the boat the inspectors were interested in – it’s what was on the boat that made them nervous.


Sen. Michelle Stennett Democratic Senate Minority Leader


An Idaho license plate covered by quagga mussels.

What they found on that boat were zebra mussels. Inspectors are also on the lookout for quagga mussels. Collectively, we refer to both species of mussels as “invasive” species. These invaders have hard shells, multiply by the hundreds of thousands, and are generally no bigger than a finger nail. We must strengthen our state’s borders to make sure they never take root in our public waterways.

Believe it or not, Russia and Ukraine do pose a big threat to Idaho – the zebra and quagga mussels trace their origins to waterways in those countries. Over the past few decades, they have made their way to the United States via overseas cargo ships. They first surfaced in the Great Lakes and have steadily moved West. To date, Idaho has remained “mussel-free” thanks in part to the diligent men and women who protect our borders at inspection stations. They are trained to search and sanitize boats that enter our state. These mussels could be devastating to Idaho.

Just how devastating? One estimate puts the annual pricetag for dealing with these invasive species at $90 million. That’s every year. That’s just Idaho. These mussels can attach themselves to just about anything – dams, hydroelectric gears, irrigation systems. They can destroy beaches and shorelines. If you fish, farm or boat, you are a potential target. Being a rural legislator representing Camas, Gooding, Lincoln and Blaine Counties, that means just about every one of my constituents is at risk.

To date, zebra or quagga mussels have not entered Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Alberta or British Columbia, but they are present in many other Western states. Diligent border inspections and an informed, cooperative public are critical to protecting those borders from aquatic invaders.

I recently spoke with inspectors along the Idaho-Montana border. They told me about the frustrations boaters experience when stopped. However, when these inspectors explain the threat invasive species pose to Idaho, most boaters understand. The problem is, they can only do so much. None of our border checkpoints are open 24 hours. Many boaters enter our state after dark without being inspected. Furthermore, the federal government needs to take charge of foreign waterways where the mussels are already present. The feds have jurisdiction over Lakes Mead, Powell and Havasu, three of the most mussel-infested waterways in the West. Every boat coming out of those contaminated waterways should be inspected before they leave the shore – let alone cross into another state.

As someone who represents rural Idaho counties, I cringe at the thought of these things getting into irrigation pipes or hydroelectric machinery. The pricetag is just as nerve-racking.

Summer boating in Idaho is a generations-long tradition. But please understand the threat Idaho faces and support our border inspectors. You don’t want to make the news as the person who brought invasive species into Idaho.

-- Sen. Michelle Stennett is the Senate Democratic Leader. She represents Lincoln, Camas, Gooding and Blaine counties in the Idaho State Legislature.


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