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Baltimore Combats Spread of Zebra Mussels Through Permitting Program

NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab/Wikimedia Commons

The letter said that city officials had heard my show and then checked their records and found that I did not have the proper sticker for boating on the reservoir. "Failure to follow the City of Baltimore Watershed Regulations is...subject to fines up to $1,000," the letter warned.

Clark Howells, Watershed Manager for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, explained the reason during a meeting with me. "We have an affidavit system that requires boaters to register their boats and pay for a permit cost," Howells said. "In addition to that, they can only use their boat in one of the three city-owned reservoirs. There is a permit sticker and a permit card, the signing of the affidavit, and that will give you access to the reservoirs.”

My first reaction was: Yes, if there’s one thing the city is really good at – it’s issuing fines. But then I reflected: Actually, the city is right and I am wrong here. I did not have a permit to paddle on Prettyboy Reservoir. And there is a very good reason that the city is so vigilant about regulating which boats can use the man-made lakes that collect water for its drinking water treatment system.

Baltimore is  trying to prevent the introduction of an invasive species, zebra mussels, that has caused millions of dollars in damage to drinking water treatment systems and power plant intakes – as well as ecological disruption -- across the Midwest and elsewhere.

“The zebra mussel is a unique invasive,” Howells said. “It has what is called bissell threads  that allow it to attach to any hard substrate. For the water supply, they are a threat to the intake system.  They will attach to the interior of the pipe; and over time, they can clog the entire pipe, creating a maintenance issue and a real headache for us.”

A native to southern Russia and the Ukraine, zebra mussels began spreading through the Great Lakes in the late 1980s after hitchhiking to the U.S. in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. They have since moved down the Susquehanna River into the Conowingo Dam reservoir in northern Maryland.

To prevent the spread of not only zebra mussels but other invasive species – such as the dreaded didymo, an algae nicknamed “rock snot” for its hideous, stringy appearance -- the Maryland Department of Natural Resources strongly encourages boaters to clean, drain and dry their boats and fishing equipment between trips.

Mike Naylor is a program director at the state wildlife agency.

“The steps that can be taken to limit the spread of invasives tend to be very common sense,” Naylor said. “Looking around your trailer, to make sure nothing is hanging off.  Drying the bilge of your boat, where invasives could live for weeks or even months, if there’s standing water.  And absolutely cleaning your gear between bodies of water.  All those things can be extremely helpful in limiting the spread of invasives.”

At the national level, the U.S. Coast Guard last year began been imposing a strict new standard… that is requiring ship owners… to install chlorination and filtration systems …to keep aquatic hitchhikers out of the ballast tanks of international cargo vessels entering the Chesapeake Bay and other bodies of water.

“Yes, we’re seeing a really big ramp up in the number of ships that are installing those treatment technologies,” said Greg Ruiz, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.  “In the U.S., nationwide, for vessels coming over from overseas, about 20 percent of the volume being discharged has undergone some sort of treatment technology.”  This percentage will continue to rise as  more ships around the world add filters and chlorination systems.

So Baltimore is in good company – and following smart public policy --  in cracking down on invasive species.



Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.