Nebraska Proposes Law to Halt Spread of Zebra Mussels

Story and photos by Megan Brincks, NewsNetNebraska

Zebra mussels coat objects in the water, severely restricting water flow in pipes.

A zebra mussel infestation at Zorinsky Lake continues to distress Nebraska environmental agencies, but new legislation may prevent this pesky species from invading other Nebraska water sources.

On Feb. 17, the Natural Resources Committee in the Nebraska State Legislature will hear testimony for two bills that would form a Nebraska Invasive Species Advisory Council to teach people about invasive species. The council also would empower the Nebraska Games and Parks Commission to regulate how equipment used in Nebraska lakes and rivers should be cleaned to help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species, like the zebra mussels.

Zebra mussels first entered the U.S. in 1989 on a cargo ship from Europe, and since then, they have spread from the Great Lakes to many other water sources. They often cover pipes and drains, blocking water flow and causing costly repairs. Zebra mussels decrease fish populations, which makes recreational fishing virtually impossible. The mussels also are hard on people because the sharp shells can cut through skin.

In late November, a Boy Scout found a zebra mussel at Lake Zorinsky, located on the west side of Omaha, Neb., and alerted officials. This prompted Nebraska environmental agencies to close the lake and drain about 20 feet of water to expose the zebra mussels to cold air in hopes they will die. The agencies also will begin testing the lake weekly to monitor the infestation.

A local boy scout found this zebra mussel attached to a can at Zorinsky Lake, sparking action to eradicate this invasive species.

“Drawing the water down exposes the zebra mussels to air, which will kill them,” said Karie Decker, invasive species coordinator of the Nebraska Invasive Species Project at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to the Nebraska Invasive Species Project, the Nebraska Games and Parks Commission, the City of Omaha, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers comprise the team gathered to deal with the infestation.

Jolene Hulsing, natural resource specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns Zorinsky Lake, said lowering lake water eliminated zebra mussels in lakes in other states. Despite her confidence that the zebra mussels will freeze over the winter, she still hesitates to say all the zebra mussels will die. Hulsing said the zebra mussels are very prolific, and one female can produce 1 million eggs.

“They are very tenacious,” Hulsing said. “They are very hard to get rid of.”

Although exposing the mussels to air kills them, some lakes’ infestations are too severe for this method to work. In Kansas, some lakes were so badly infested that the best option was to expose the mussels to air to reduce the population to a manageable level. Decker said officials may have caught the mussel infestation before it gets out of hand.

“We felt the infestation at Zorinsky is still in the early stages,” Decker said, “so we hope that this will eliminate them before the infestation gets worse.”

Because the zebra mussel spreads quickly and easily, the environmental agencies involved want to ensure the mussels do not spread across Nebraska. Decker said the agencies will collect weekly samples from all of the lakes in the Papio Creek Watershed, including Zorinsky Lake, and visually inspect for adult mussels through the end of the summer.

Decker also said she plans to focus on educating the public about how to prevent zebra mussels from spreading. When people fail to properly clean and dry their boats after being in an infested lake, they can take the mussels with them unknowingly. Decker said Colorado and Wyoming have prevented the spread of zebra mussels, and she said she hopes Nebraska will have the same success. If the current legislation passes, boaters would be required to clean their equipment when leaving public water.

David Tunink, assistant fisheries administrator at Nebraska Game and Parks, said after Zorinsky Lake is free of zebra mussels, hopefully by this fall, the Nebraska Games and Parks Department will restock the lake with a variety of fish, including bass and blue gill. He said it will take a couple years before people can fish again.
Zorinsky Lake would have been drained and restocked within a couple years, so this just accelerates the restocking, Tunink said.

“The fish population was going down,” Tunink said. “This just speeds up the process.”

Zorinsky Lake’s water level was lowered, and it will remain closed through the rest of this year.

Nebraska environmental agencies worry about other invasive species in addition to zebra mussels, Tunink said.

“If you look at all invasive species,” Tunink said, “there’s 50,000 in the U.S. right now.”

Zorinsky Lake is the second lake in Nebraska with a zebra mussel infestation. Offutt Lake, also near Omaha, became infested with zebra mussels several years ago. Offutt Lake is federally owned and only open to air force personnel, which decreases the chance of zebra mussels spreading from Offutt Lake. Because Offutt cannot be lowered due to its structure, the managers of the lake tried a chemical treatment, Hulsing said. The treatment did not work.

“What we are essentially trying to do is to keep the zebra mussels, and other invasive species, at bay,” Decker said. If they manage to free Zorinsky Lake from the zebra mussels, it will reopen with a fresh stock of fish for recreational users.

“Currently there is no definitive way to eradicate zebra mussels,” Decker said. “If we can hold them off for a few years, we can figure out an effective way to get rid of them. There is a lot of research going on right now to figure this out.”

Preventing the Spread of Zebra Mussels
Preventative measures are vital to preventing the spread of zebra mussels and other aquatic nuisance species. Source:
• Remove all visible mud, plants, fish and animals. Even though you might not see something does not mean it’s not hiding in lake debris.
• Get rid of water from all equipment.
• Clean and dry anything that came into contact with water. Use hot or salt water if available. If not, spray equipment with high-pressure water. After cleaning, allow all equipment to dry for five days before putting it in different water.
• Don’t release plants or animals into any water from which they did not originate.

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