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Speaker shares insights on tackling watershed threats

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News from the Flathead Lakers

Quality science, engaged citizens, and cooperation among resource management agencies are the key components needed to address threats to Flathead Lake and its watershed. That was the message shared by Rich Moy, keynote speaker at the Flathead Lakers 2018 Annual Meeting.

“Those threats are becoming more severe and harder to solve,” Moy said. He has served as one of the three U.S. Commissioners on the International Joint Commission since 2011. The IJC is tasked with preventing and resolving water resource disputes between the U.S. and Canada. Moy said the Commission works with multiple committees staffed by exceptional scientists.

He shared insights from working on complex disputes and problems across the U.S.- Canada boundary and from his previous experience working on water policy, management, and planning for Montana DNRC plus his long service as a member and Chair of the Flathead Basin Commission. 

Moy played a key role in defending the Flathead’s clean waters from open-pit coal mine proposals in the British Columbia North Fork headwaters, an international dispute that spanned over 30 years. 

Moy described how quagga mussels have completely changed the Great Lakes system. “There is no cure,” he said. “The warming climate is without a doubt causing problems across the U.S.-Canadian transboundary and it is vital to build adaptive management into all of our programs.” He said the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty provides an opportunity to answer important questions about the costs and benefits of current dam operations and resolve problems to support more equitable management.

Addressing current and future threats requires what the Flathead Lakers have provided for so long, Moy said. It takes the voice of local citizens to catalyze agency and legislative action.

The synergy in the Flathead among Flathead Lake Biological Station’s science, Flathead Lakers’ citizen engagement, and Flathead Basin Commission’s intergovernmental cooperation has been a powerful approach to addressing watershed threats and solving problems. Moy said he has shared this approach and supported using it to deal with water problems in other watersheds. 

That synergy has been diminished by the state funding cut for the Flathead Basin Commission and firing its executive director. Moy said he truly doesn’t understand why that happened. “I worked with Governors Ted Schwinden, Stan Stephens, Judy Martz, and Brian Schweitzer – all were strong supporters of the Commission.”

Moy chaired the Basin Commission when it was moved to DNRC from the Governor’s office. He said the Memorandum of Understanding between DNRC and the Commission was very clear that the relationship with DNRC was solely for administrative purposes.

As the challenges increase, so does the need for land, water, and natural resources managers to work together to find common ground based on the Biological Station’s science and in concert with the citizen voice of the Flathead Lakers.

Flathead Lakers Present Stewardship Award to Biological Station

President Steve Rosso presented the Flathead Lakers 2018 Stewardship Award to the University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station at their annual meeting on July 25.

Rosso said the Flathead Lakers 60th Anniversary was an opportune time to recognize the impressive accomplishments of the Biological Station and the long history of working together. 

“We are very fortunate to have this exceptional research and education institution and its talented and collegial scientists and staff right here on Flathead Lake,” Rosso said. “Their research is the foundation for understanding our river and lake system and the natural resources they support. It is the basis for sound policies, and it guides our decisions on complex problems and opportunities.”

“One of the highlights of my time here is getting to know all of you,” said Jim Elser, who became Director of the Biological Station in 2015. “The Flathead Lakers is unparalleled in its size, dedication, and history of protecting Flathead Lake and clean water,” he said, and colleagues at other biological stations around the country are envious of having a citizens group like the Lakers where they work.

Assistant Director Tom Bansak and former Director Dick Solberg, at the helm in the 1960s, accepted the award along with Elser. Solberg spoke about the transition from a summer operation to funding and constructing a new building to accommodate year-round research during his tenure.  He said that opened the door for John Tibbs, Jack Stanford, and now Jim Elser, to build the exceptional research and education program that exists today. 

Biological Station Director: State of the Lake is Blue and Mussel-free Flathead Lake Biological Station Director Jim Elser had good news this summer. The annual State of the Lake Report he presented to the Flathead Lakers at their annual meeting is that Flathead Lake is clear blue and free of invasive mussels.

He said the new collaboration between the Flathead Lakers and the Biological Station on a Citizen Science program this summer will provide important data. More than two dozen volunteers are out dipping Secchi disks all around the lake in July to measure water transparency. Elser said, “that information will tell us more” about how clear and blue the lake is. 

The Biological Station has measured Secchi disk depths at the mid-lake monitoring site for 40 years. The Citizen Scientists will provide information about water clarity from different locations. It is  the first time Flathead Lake will participate in the national Secchi Disk Dip-in.

The mid-lake data show no trend, Elser said, which means the lake remains extremely clear, on average, he said, becoming a little more clear. Almost every other lake is going in the other direction with a declining trend in transparency. “You all have done a better job protecting water quality than at Lake Tahoe,” he said.

“It’s all about nutrients,” Elser said. Years of effort to establish municipal sewage treatment plants in the watershed have helped the lake. In 2001, about 4 percent of the nutrients entering Flathead Lake came from shoreline septic systems. But those systems are aging out and more homes have been built, so that percent may be growing. Elser said new technology is developing to recapture nitrogen from sewage to use for fertilizer.

Elser reported that no detections of mussels have been found in any of the eDNA samples collected from Flathead Lake or other lakes in the watershed again this year.

He shared results from the successful trip to Lake Mead to test the new “mussel-sniffing” device developed by Bio Station scientist Cody Youngbull, that they’ve named the DNA Tracker. The Tracker is designed to indicate whether a species is present in a water body. Lake Mead’s heavily infested waters were an ideal spot to test the Tracker. 

At Lake Mead, researchers discovered that even without concentrating the environmental DNA in water samples, the Tracker could show whether mussel eDNA was present. Passing Lake Mead water directly through the Tracker showed high amounts of mussel eDNA.

Elser said researchers think the DNA Tracker can be used to “verify effectiveness of watercraft cleaning” to help prevent the spread of mussels. “Who would have thought the most important technological advancement for detecting invasive species would be unfurled at Yellow Bay?”

Elser also reported that environmental economist Nanette Nelson is investigating the economic impacts of an “all-out” mussel invasion, which could help justify strong mussel prevention efforts. She is looking at costs to agriculture, hydropower, homeowners, recreation, and others.

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