Boat inspection program faces budget shortfall

Betsy Z. Russell / The Spokesman-Review This Idaho license plate, immersed in Lake Mead for nine months, emerged thickly encrusted with invasive quagga mussels; some have been scraped off to show the plate underneath. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, has the plate on display in her Capitol office in Boise; she wants Idaho to avoid similar infestations in its waterways. Betsy Z. Russell / The Spokesman-Review

BOISE — Idaho’s boat inspection program, aimed at keeping invasive quagga and zebra mussels out of the state, is facing a big budget shortfall that’s sent state lawmakers scrambling.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, plans to propose an additional funding boost in the current year’s budget on Monday, designed to “get us through this year and get our boat stations set up,” she said. “We’ve got some fishing derbies coming up in March and boats are starting to move.”

Idaho’s been running the inspection stations around the state in the spring, summer and fall with funding from a special invasive species sticker that all boaters who use Idaho waters are required to buy. The sticker program has been raising about $1.1 million a year, which was enough to run the program — but then lawmakers required the inspection program to do more, including opening every station from dawn to dusk.

Now that invasive mussels have been found in Montana, the state Department of Agriculture wants to open up three new inspection stations aimed at traffic coming from that state. And a legislative interim committee that studied the threat from the tiny, fast-spreading invasive mussels, which can destroy irrigation equipment, foul beaches and ruin landscapes, is calling for six stations to move to 24-hour operation, which would cost millions over the course of a year.

“We don’t have the funds to run dawn to dusk or nighttime stations, or three new stations,” state Agriculture Director Celia Gould told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this week. “Those are the unknowns that add a significant amount to this budget.”

Keough said at this point, the state needs between $300,000 and $1.2 million more just to get the program through the current budget year, which ends June 30. The $300,000 figure is just to run all existing stations from dawn to dusk; the higher figure adds the new stations, nighttime operations, and additional law enforcement staffing required to operate the stations at night.

Then, next year, with the expanded hours and more stations, the program would need an additional $4.5 million. The Department of Agriculture requested a $700,000 boost to the inspection program in next year’s budget, plus spending authority for an anticipated $1 million in federal grant funds. Gov. Butch Otter recommended spending only the federal money.

It hasn’t arrived yet; Idaho’s been waiting. Congress approved $4 million in 2015 for four states — Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana — to split for their mussel-prevention watercraft inspection programs.

“It’s grant money — right now it’s one-time money,” Gould told lawmakers. “The minute we see the grant become available, we’ll apply for it, and hopefully it will be written in a manner that we can put it on the ground for these boat inspection facilities.”

“I pledge to you we’re doing the very best job with this program that we can,” Gould told lawmakers. “I’m proud of the program that we’re running. We did 90,000 inspections last year. It’s a tough program to claim success, because we don’t know it’s a failure until you get a quagga mussel in the state. … Our folks are doing a good job.”

The Nov. 8 discovery of mussel larvae in north-central Montana’s Tiber Reservoir was the first time the invasive mussels have been detected in the Northwest — a region that thus far has remained free of the pipe-clogging, beach-encrusting mussels. No bigger than a thumbnail, the tiny mussels are spread largely on trailered boats and other watercraft as they travel from one part of the country to another. But once they get into a waterway, they can quickly spread downstream on their own.

So far, the Montana infestation hasn’t spread, but officials throughout the Northwest — including in Canada — are on alert.

“The Montana thing hit us between the eyes,” Gould said. “Knowing that they’re there, we would put in three stations that we wouldn’t have had on the drawing board prior to the Montana find.”

Gould is pulling together detailed data on the boat traffic and hours and the state’s various inspection stations to help lawmakers craft a funding solution that matches the traffic. “The best way, in my experience, is to look at each one individually,” she said, rather than “a blanket approach.”

The Legislature’s interim committee that called for nighttime operations also is calling for an $8 increase in the cost of invasive species stickers for out-of-state motorboats that use Idaho waterways, from $22 to $30 for the annual sticker. But that legislation hasn’t yet been introduced.

For Idaho residents, the $10 cost of the invasive species sticker is included in the annual fee for boat registration, which varies with the size of the motorboat; for non-motorized craft, including canoes and kayaks, stickers are $7.

This article originally published in The Spokesman-Review.