Thursday, January 24, 2008

CMWD Delays Lake Closure Decision

The entry to Lake Casitas is guarded by a sign warning boaters about the quagga mussel invasion and inspections to prevent the infestation. Casitas Municipal Water District is investigating ways to halt the infestation and is expected to make a decision at its board meeting in February

By Daryl Kelley
Despite pleas to act quickly to stop a potential infestation of a destructive mussel, Casitas Municipal Water District put off Wednesday for at least a month any decision on closing Lake Casitas to outside boats to protect the Ojai Valley’s water supply.
Casitas staff members investigating how to combat an invasive mussel that has caused billions of dollars in damage in the Great Lakes area, and has now reached Southern California, said it would take at least until Feb. 20 to present to the board a well-researched set of options.
The Casitas board had said it would deal with the issue at its Feb. 13 meeting.
But Wednesday directors said the issue is so complex they could not hear the issue fully until either Feb. 20 or March 4, depending on the availability of experts and how quickly directors learn how much a quagga mussel infestation would cost to combat and whether it could ever be controlled.
The board will also receive estimates of how much money closure of the lake, a prime bass fishery, would cost the district and surrounding businesses.
Possible actions include closing Lake Casitas to all outside boats, the hot-water spraying of all boats entering the lake, adding storage for boats to be used only at the lake and increasing the number of rental boats for fishing.
The pivotal public hearing would probably be held at the Oak View Community Center, since an overflow crowd of 85 people, mostly concerned fishermen, attended a Jan. 9 discussion about how to keep the mussel out of Lake Casitas. The water district was cited by the Ventura County Fire Department for unsafe conditions, because the crowd was about twice as large as allowed in the water district’s small meeting room.
The board will also consider at that hearing a new threat just discovered in San Bernardino County, the existence of the zebra mussel in a lake there. It was the first zebra mussel, a cousin of the quagga, found in the western United States, officials said.
Both types of mussels are suspected of traveling from lake to lake by boat, although the quagga mussel’s migration northward, after it was discovered at Lake Mead and Lake Havasu a year ago, has apparently occurred in the sprawling canal system of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
The infestation of the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes area, discovered two decades ago after the mollusk migrated from the Ukraine aboard ships, now costs utilities about $140 million a year to try to control and to clean encrusted facilities, Casitas spokesman Ron Merkling told the board.
The pernicious mussel could ravage the Lake Casitas ecosytem and clog its waterworks, costing millions of dollars to control and to clean pipes, valves and the lake’s water treatment plant, officials have estimated.
“I’m still amazed there hasn’t been a declaration of emergency on this,” Director Pete Kaiser said.
Casitas Recreation Area manager Brian Roney, the pointman on the mussel inquiry, said the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which owns many of the infested lakes in California and Lake Casitas Dam and Reservoir, has done very little to combat the problem.
And the state Department of Fish and Game, the lead California agency, has received almost no money to sound warnings or to implement computer tracking systems to red-flag boats that leave infested lakes before they enter clean ones, he said.
“Are they waiting for an agency such as us to declare an emergency?” Kaiser asked.
“It’s a mess,” Roney said. “It’s not on their radar.”
Seven California lakes are infested with the quagga mussel. One lake near Escondido has been closed to boats to prevent infestation.
Roney said he favored a “passport” system under which a sticker would be attached to a boat when it enters an infested lake, and which rangers at Lake Casitas could easily see. But he said that suggestion has not been acted on. Also, infested lakes in Arizona and Nevada would not be required to follow a California passport system, he said.
As Casitas District directors continued to grapple with the thorny mussel issue, two speakers implored them Wednesday to close the lake immediately to secure the water supply of 70,000 residents in the Ojai Valley and western Ventura and hundreds of large farms.
Two speakers, both fishermen, also asked the board not to act hastily by closing the lake before all the facts are in.
“I would like to suggest that the board adopt an emergency measure prohibiting the entry of any boat through the gate until suitable equipment is found for contamination and it is found 100 percent effective, or that a quarantine procedure is identified that is 100 percent effective,” valley resident Ralph Steele told the board.
“My point,” he added, “is to save the lake first and then allow outside boats back in ... After the lake has been protected then we can talk about boating and fishing.”
Ojai resident Larry Yuva, also a fisherman, joined Steele in asking directors to close the lake now as a precaution.”
“Before you consider all the science, consider the ratepayer: they’re why you guys are sitting up there. ... Everything else is secondary,” Yuva said. “It’s just ridiculous you haven’t taken the first step of closing the lake.”
But Larry Elshere of Ojai asked the board not to react out of fear.
“If we live in fear none of us would ever leave our homes,” he said.” With properly trained people and equipment we can defeat this enemy.”
Fisherman Gary Lumas thanked the board for moving to protect one of the best bass fisheries in the nation. He said agencies throughout California are waiting to see what Casitas does to protect the lake as a water and recreational resource.
“As a fisherman I will do whatever it takes,” Lumas said. “But, please, don’t do anything until the science is in. As fishermen, we do support you guys. ... And our neighbors are waiting to see what you do.”
Marine biologist David Wilson distributed to the board a research paper by state of New York scientists that suggests progress in the fight against the damaging mussels.
He distributed to the board a 2007 report which concludes that dead bacteria may be safely spread in lakes to kill mussels, once the voracious mollusk eats it.
Now, Great Lakes power plants and water distribution agencies attempt to control the mussels with chlorine and other poisonous chemicals, the report noted. But that has been challenged by environmentalists as a long-term solution, the report said.
Casitas Director Russ Baggerly said, however, that the new biological attack uses a poisonous bacteria. Wilson said the bacteria is safe, because it would be spread only after it was dead. Humans and other lake animals would not be harmed, he said.
For clarification on such issues, Baggerly asked that one of the two top mussel experts in California be brought to Oak View to attend the Casitas hearing next month or in March.
“Science is going to be paramount in whatever decision we make,” Baggerly said.
Board President Jim Word assured the public: “This is a vital issue ... It affects the community at large — cities — users. It’s going to be aired fully before a decision is made.

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