North Texas Bets Big on Pumping from Lake Texoma

Environmentalists fear plan will let invasive zebra mussels spread.

At the beginning of the month, I had a column in the paper talking about a study saying the Dallas area is in much better shape than many of the nation's big metropolitan areas in terms of water supply. Now it turns out we're betting the farm and risking the extinction of the entire system.

No good news goes unpunished, in this case by a mollusk, which is being given a big assist by thirsty North Texans.

We all get this: If our water system dies, the region dies. In the search for extra-terrestrial life, they don't look for the planets with no water. Same thing for cities.

This story involves a gamble, not certain doom. We could win this turn of the wheel, but some people who know a lot about the issue wonder why we want to play.

In just a few short years, Lake Texoma has become heavily infested with zebra mussels, a small bivalve mollusk (looks like a little clam) that started showing up in North America in the late 1980s. Scientists think they came here as unwanted stowaways on ships from Central Europe and Eurasia.

Away from natural predators and other conditions that hold them in check in their native lands, zebra mussel populations here explode like nukes in fresh water, sucking the life out of lakes in a few short years. Their capacity to multiply and kill entire food chains is so frightening that they already are considered a serious threat to the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes are oceans. They hold 21 percent of the world's surface fresh water. If zebra mussels can threaten the ecology of something that vast, what do we think they could do to our reservoirs in North Texas?

Cliff Moore, a North Texas naturalist and critic of current policy on zebra mussels at Texoma, says: "We stand to risk all of the lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands in the state of Texas if we don't quarantine Lake Texoma and stop the movement of these zebra mussels."

But we're about to do just the opposite. Instead of locking up Texoma, we're going to open the spigot and let 'er spill.

The Tulsa District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls Texoma, informed me last Friday they were about to grant permission to the North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD) to begin pumping drinking water from Texoma for the first time since pumping stopped in August 2009 to prevent the spread of the mussels.

This action awards us with some dubious firsts. We are about to become the first people in the world to pump massive volumes of drinking water from a body of water known to be infested with these life-strangling mussels. We also are about to become the first people in the world to rely on a system of containment that is much cheaper and simpler than methods in use elsewhere. Our system is untested anywhere else.

Texoma is an 89,000-acre manmade reservoir 70 miles north of Dallas at the Texas-Oklahoma border. The water pumped from Texoma will flow into a creek that flows into Lake Lavon, a 21,000-acre reservoir in Collin County between Plano and Farmersville, owned and operated by the Fort Worth District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The pumping will be done by the NTMWD, which sells water to suburbs north of Dallas.

It's not that there is no plan to contain the mussels. There is. Andy Commer, the regulatory director for the Tulsa district of the corps, told me the corps was granting permission to pump only after consulting with scientists and engaging in a long process of talks with NTMWD, which devised the original pumping and containment plan.

So we must hope he's right, and the scientists are right and the NTMWD is right. Otherwise we will spew zebra mussels into the entire ecosystem of the region and state.

That's what stops the critics dead in their tracks — the sheer size of the risk. No matter how bad our drought, no matter how much we think we need that water, the risk of putting a bullet in the head of every lake and river in the state is more than some experts on the issue can even fathom.

Jeff Alexander, a Michigan journalist with an award-winning book on the topic, says he can't understand how one reservoir full of water, even a big one, possibly could be worth such a terrifying roll of the dice.

"I would be skeptical that you could pump water from a reservoir that is already infested with zebra mussels into one that is not and not infect the other reservoir," Alexander says. "To me that just seems like Russian roulette at the highest levels."

Zebra mussels spread through a body of water in a phase of their life cycle when they are of microscopic size, like spores, free-floating at all depths and numbering in the billions. They pick up calcium and grow shells as they float, eventually becoming heavy enough to sink. If they hit the right kind of surface when they sink, they grow in huge numbers and begin powerfully sucking in microscopic food sources, devouring so much life that they starve out all the other species at their level of the food chain.

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17 comments
pschulze
pschulze

The zebra mussels will get to the other lakes whether the pipe lets them through or not because boaters will carry them and we don't seem to have the stomach to prevent movement of boats.  It is great to get boaters to attempt to prevent moving them around but as long as lots of boats move it is virtually certain that the mussels will too. The bigger issue is our cavalier attitude toward non-native species.  God forbid we encumber commerce with any serious effort to prevent the intercontinental movement of species. Zebra mussels are just one example.  Fire ants and West Nile Virus are other local examples.  A colleague of mine told me that a colleague of his who studies non-native species found numerous species of Asian beetle larvae in the wood crating from one shipment of heavy equipment.  Each of those beetles is a potential risk to entire tree species. http://phys.org/news/2013-07-non-native-forest-pests-home-northeastern.html

Jeff Sisyphus Smalley
Jeff Sisyphus Smalley

It is rather shocking that in the 30+ years that they have been infesting the US lakes that no one has come up with a way, outside of smallmouth bath, to kill the damned things.

Jas2000
Jas2000

Ships from central Europe, are you kidding me? Take a look at a map of Europe and help me understand what type ship could get from Central Europe to the United States and I'll go buy one.

waverunner
waverunner

Genetically modified corn was only going to be ..."on a few acres", then the wind blew!! Man has never figured out all the answers BEFORE he created an epidemic.

VivlianWozz
VivlianWozz

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BD
BD

I see that this article was written in Dec. 2011. If the author had done a quick search he would see that a boat with zebra mussels was found in Lake Ray Hubbard in May of 2011. If the mussels are in Texoma and apparently now in Ray Hubbard, they are in Lavon. There is no way short of the idiotic solutions like "don't let any boat leave texoma" that will keep the mussel out of other area lakes. Deal with it realistically but Collin county needs Texoma water and zebra mussels are a regional problem now that we all will have to deal with.

Perry Moore
Perry Moore

Anyway, back to the subject. Are these mussels edible, as others certainly are? If so, all we have to do is get them on the menu at all those faux neighborhood restaurants. Call them fresh water oysters. We can calamari these little suckers right into extinction with a slick ad campaign.

GusMitchem
GusMitchem

The problem or say situation lies in the mentality of this region. Business first! Nature is for vacation. And so far that had worked out quite well. That is until our business gets too big for its britches, but really it's not just north Texas there s too damm many people most places

txnomad
txnomad

Anyone who plants grass, bushes, or trees that require more watering than native plants is part of the problem.

Paul
Paul

Denial is not a river in Egypt nor is it an effective control against zebra mussels.

I have noticed over the years that there is a complete and utter lack of critical thinking done by various groups with respect to solving problems.

This plan by the NTMWD and other vested interests demonstrates this attitude.

Instead of accurately assessing the risk and the cost of failure, there is instead one big, huge juicy rationalization as to why this plan should be carried out.

Consider these following phrases from the past and see which have indeed come true;

"Nuclear energy will make electricity too cheap to meter."

"DDT is safe to use."

"Thalidomide is an excellent drug for the control of morning sickness."

"The sardine fishery in Monterrey Bay is limitless."

I am of the opinion that the benefit/cost ratio of pumping water from the now zebra mussel infected Lake Texoma into Lake Lavon is significantly less than 1 and probably is approaching zero.

I am also of the opinion that if a boat touches Lake Texoma, it should be banned from any and all Texas reservoirs.

It is only a matter of time before the Zebra Mussel reaches the Mississippi River and the Louisiana and Gulf fisheries.

The fact remains that the NTMWD and its member cities have failed to secure an adequate water supply for their service area.

I would not be surprised if DWU either signs a long term supply contract with NTMWD or DWU absorbs NTMWD.

What a disaster created by one idiot who moved his boat from Zebra Mussel infested waters to Lake Texoma.

ItchyJack
ItchyJack

Wow, not only do we get to let our private gardens go fallow due to residential water restrictions, while city sprinklers spray into the street, and while Chesapeake and the other subsidized gas companies use billions of gallons of fresh surface and ground water every year to wash sand and to frac subsurface formations, which has proven to result in the contamination of several of our aquifers; we now get to watch the Corps and NTMWD ruin our 'clean' reservoirs. Eh, not surprising...we all know the Corps rolls over for any political entity with so-called clout with short-term interests in mind.

Sa
Sa

BTW: Turned off my sprinkler system 6 weeks ago. Will keep it off until next summer.

Sa
Sa

I live in the NTMWD...and I think we have to take our chances with zebra mussels. We're between a rock and a very very dry place.

Perry Moore
Perry Moore

Anyone that plants grass, bushes or trees that require more water than God sends us is also on my list. Especially if they live in my neighborhood. Brown is the new green.

GusMitchem
GusMitchem

Your garden is worthless, those petrochemicals are quite valuable !

Susie Nix
Susie Nix

We shouldnt have to threaten our eco system because of the idiots who keep planting water sucking plants in their yards. Those plants should be outlawed and they should do so NOW!! I am sick of listening to people who complain about their stupid lawns when the water is needed for more important things and frankly the lawn lovers are the ones making the drought worse. I hope feral hogs rip out all the lawns they can get to.

JimS
JimS

What chances? Your yard versus the entire drinking supply and ecoystem of Texas? If you're so big on rolling the dice, bet your own money.

 
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