Zebra Mussels: Side Effects of The Invasion in Austin, Texas
The scars left on The City of Austin by malignant Zebra mussels beneath the surface of our rivers and lakes are lasting.
It is not hard to see the reason why the city of Austin, Texas is so desirable to call home. I for one have been grateful enough to spend the 20 years of my life in this wonderful city. Growing up, Lake Austin was, and still is, my sanctuary. Most of those that have the chance to experience it would likely agree that Lake Austin is a special setting within a rapidly growing city.
Lake Austin and the Colorado River as a whole is the City of Austin’s number one water source. With water treatment plants and massive dams to regulate the flow of the river and process drinking water, Austin Water produces water for just shy of 1 million Austin residents. What most residents, new and old, don’t realize is that human beings aren’t the only organisms we have a population influx of. The Zebra mussel, a non-indigenous invasive species often referred to as “the aquatic hitchhiker,” measuring in at under two inches long, their malignant nature allows them to cover thousands of square feet of our lakes’ underwater surfaces.
Since their first appearance in the northern United States in the late ’80s, waterways in and around Austin managed to steer clear of the pests until around 2011. I can recall efforts then to prevent the mussels from swarming our beloved Lake Austin by way of careless boaters launching in and out of Lake Travis, which was already infected. These efforts were referred to as the “Clean, Drain, Dry” tactic where boaters would drain the water from their boats to dry them out in order to flush out Zebra mussel larvae that can’t be seen by the naked eye. The end of this story is easy to assume, Zebra mussels are infesting our precious Lake Austin and turning a blind eye to them is not the answer.
As a community blessed with the presence of the Colorado River running through it, Austin boaters have the leg up in understanding this issue due to their increased awareness and experiences with Zebra mussels. I myself work on Lake Austin each summer teaching local kids to waterski, wakeboard, and wakesurf within a company called Executive Watersports. With the presence of Zebra mussels around docks, underwater ladders, rocks and bulkheads, our campers and staff are literally scarred each summer due to the sharp edges on the mussels’ shells. These often times minor scrapes are nothing compared to the deeps wounds inflicted on our city’s water treatment infrastructure.
Zebra mussels have the capabilities to leave a permanent scar on the City of Austin. While they act like cholesterol and clog pipes and water intake structures, they’re hindering Austin Water’s ability to filter, clean, and distribute water efficiently and Austinites need to be forewarned of the potential damning effects of this.
From a socioeconomic standpoint, a lack of treated water is not something a booming city like Austin needs to be challenged with. As we saw in the great Texas snowstorm this past February, 2021, people city-wide were faced with power and water outages. This two to three day snow storm proved how vulnerable our water utility infrastructure can be. With an issue like clogged pipes from Zebra mussels, water treatment intakes like the one pictured below have the potential to be affected for months, bringing the city to a grinding halt. Not just temporarily as in the February freeze.
The massive expenditure of treating our lakes for Zebra mussel infestation is money that could, and should, be spent on other civic issues Austin faces such as homelessness. With the city up in arms about the recent passing of Proposition B banning camping, this is an issue we might not have been seeing to this degree if it weren’t for frustrating expenditures towards something that very few Austinites actually ever see. This time, the solution to fixing a lake related problem isn’t so easy as dropping in 10,000 plant eating carp like the city arranged to eradicate hydrilla a few years back. This time, the solution is spending 20 bucks per one thousand gallons of a chemical called liquid copper sulfate pentahydride. At this point you’re probably wondering what in the hell that chemical is going into out city’s main supply of drinking water, and to be quite honest, I don’t have the answer to that question either. Regardless, this method of treatment is unsettling and costs millions of dollars in tax payer money through the chemical compound and through labor costs of the divers that then in turn scrape remnants of these mussels off of water intake structures just so our city can drink. These costly and tedious tactics are outlined and explained in this video courtesy of Austin Water.
With all that being said, the chemical is effective, and has been proven to eradicate the mussels without any immediate harm to the ecosystem, or the quality of our drinking water. My proposed solution is two pronged: 1. We continue with our valiant efforts to remove the Zebra mussels from Lake Austin via chemical compounds and manual labor. Arguably more importantly: 2. Educate boaters and non-boaters alike on the nature of Zebra mussels and the importance of taking “Clean, Drain, Dry” laws seriously. If we can successfully treat Lake Austin with the Zebra mussel fighting chemical, the next step is to ensure the problem doesn’t resurface due to ignorance of the mussels’ presence in boat tanks and pumps.
If Austinites can come together as lake goers or land dwellers to understand the greater cause behind the funding of chemicals to remove Zebra mussels, as well as being diligent when transporting boats to and from surrounding lakes, we can prevent a water treatment crisis.
Although my claims and research have brought upon massive amounts of concern for the future of our city’s drinking supply, what is often overshadowed is the mussels’ invasion on the greater ecosystem below the waves of Lake Austin. Zebra mussels filter Lake Austin’s water at an insanely productive rate making the lake look clearer, and seem cleaner.
When asking my fellow “lake rat,” as they call our wakeboarding camp staff, what he thought about the mussels’ presence in our lake, he was virtually unbothered, saying he wasn’t so much concerned about the mussels due to their abilities to clear up the water. What he did mention though, was his distaste for the mussels knowing they’re not native to U.S. waterways, let alone Texas ones. What comes with the filtration of the water, I’ve learned, is the increasing amount of sunlight that is able to reach the floor of the lake. This in turn causes damage to the plants and weeds that thrive in the dark and murky water 20 feet below the surface. With the death of these native plants comes the lack of shelter for smaller fish and organisms typically preyed on. We know where this goes, a classic ecosystem disruption causing a chain reaction among the lake’s naturally occurring food chain, all thanks to the invasive Zebra mussel virus.
Although their water filtration makes the mussels out to be not all bad, their harmful effects due to their clogging nature and systemic disruption to the ecosystem outweigh the cosmetic appeal of having clearer waters. Austin is already a beautiful city in itself, and in order to keep its residents healthy, and hydrated for that matter, we must all work together to ensure we don’t disregard these invasives. Yes, by clogging up our water treatment “arteries” we will inadvertently unclog our transportation “arteries” but the lack of drinking water in Austin, will make the city an undesirable destination.
“Austin Water Reaches Milestone in Management of Zebra Mussels.” YouTube, 26 Oct. 2020, youtu.be/CnEoskHLDEw.
Charpentier, Marisa. “Austin to Spend up to $4 Million to Tackle Zebra Mussel Problem.” Austin Monitor, Austin Monitor, 27 Jan. 2020, www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2020/01/austin-to-spend-up-to-4-million-to-tackle-zebra-mussel-problem/.
Ferguson, Wes. “Zebra Mussels Are Infesting Texas Lakes. There’s Only One Way to Stop Them.” Texas Monthly, 13 Aug. 2019, www.texasmonthly.com/travel/zebra-mussels-texas-lakes/.
Fernandez-UCSB, Sonia. “2 Ways to Deal with Invasive Species without Toxic Stuff.” Futurity, 31 Dec. 2019, www.futurity.org/invasive-species-quagga-zebra-mussels-biofouling-2244332/.
“Zebra Mussels .” Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers, Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, 2017, stopaquatichitchhikers.org/hitchhikers/mollusks-zebra-mussel/#:~:text=Veligers%20are%20able%20to%20hitchhike,invisible%20to%20the%20naked%20eye.