Zebra Mussel Threat to Texas Lakes is Misunderestimated

Three weeks ago I wrote a column for the paper about a plan to pump drinking water from Lake Texoma even though the lake is contaminated by zebra mussels, an invasive species that can annihilate other animal life in a lake and promote blooms of toxic algae.

We here in Texas seriously do not understand what this problem is all about. A friend sent me a link to online comments from viewers who saw a zebra mussel story broadcast January 16 by KXII-Channel 12 in Sherman. Taken together, I have to say neither the viewers nor the reporter nor the state officials quoted in the story seem to really grasp what this is.

Zebra mussels, brought to North America from Europe in the ballast water of ships, reproduce ferociously and become a vast straining mechanism that strips all of the microscopic nutrients from a lake. Far from natural predators in their native lands, zebra mussels are powerful life-killers now threatening ecosystems in the Great Lakes, which hold 21 percent of the earth's fresh surface water.

For a while after the mussels were discovered in Texoma, the North Texas Municipal Water District was barred from pumping drinking water out of Texoma into Lake Lavon and distributing it to communities. But the NTMWD recently won permission to begin pumping again, using a zebra mussel control system far cheaper and less certain than methods used where drinking water is pumped from the Great Lakes.

When I wrote my story about this, a spokesperson for NTMWD told me that zebra mussels actually clean the water and have no effect on drinking water. But experts elsewhere told me this was a dangerous misconception. The mussels, they said, kill the ecosystems in lakes and promote growth of deadly toxic algae.

Lake Lavon, to which NTMWD will pump the water it takes from Texoma, is linked by rivers and pipes to lakes and reservoirs all over Texas. Zebra mussels spread as microscopic larvae that cannot be filtered. If the NTMWD makes one mistake and pumps a cloud of larvae into Lavon, all of the lakes and rivers in the state will be threatened with ruin.

In comments to the Channel 12 story, one viewer asked why Texas was not investigating the use of certain bacteria that could be bio-engineered to attack the zebra mussels. But, look, scientists all over the world are searching furiously for anything and everything that could stop the zebra mussel.

Before Texas starts trying to solve the problem itself, Texas needs to get online and trade some emails with people who have been working this problem for years.

There is no solution. So far. There is no way to stop them once they invade a body of water. That's why this is such a serious problem.

The roll of the dice that the NTMWD is taking is this: It's the value of more lawn-watering water for the suburbs north of Dallas versus the destruction of the water supply and marine environment for the rest of Texas. And this risk is being taken here, in the state's least drought-stricken area.

Because of the way the Channel 12 story was edited, many viewers apparently thought Cliff Moore, a wildlife expert who appears in the piece, was a state official. He's not. He works for a private company. He speaks for himself, however, when he talks about Texoma, a lake he grew up fishing and boating on.

He tells Channel 12: "This is my backyard. This is my lake. My lake is gone."

What he means is that the old days of open fishing and boats in and out of Texoma are gone, or should be. Lake Texoma should be rigidly quarantined. No one should be allowed to pump water from it, ever. The lake should be closed to boats from other lakes or boats kept at home, a move that would wipe out the lake's large recreational industry.

So why would a guy who loves Texoma and grew up on it ever propose doing something like that? "I don't want to lose the rest of Texas," he says in the piece.

Of course there are commenters who think he's a scoundrel and wonder how anybody could ever say a thing like about such a beautiful lake, but those are people who simply do not understand the scope of the threat. Moore is the boy who cried wolf when the wolves were just about to break the hill.

Somewhere in Texas, somebody has a serious dog in this hunt, a major stake in the state's water supply and marine environment. That person or people need to step up.

I think I'm talking about you.