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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Fees Increase For Boaters, Hydropower Producers

Aquatic Invasive species watercraft inspection station.
Nick Mott
Montana Public Radio
Watercraft Inspection Station

The Montana Legislature last week tweaked the way it raises money to prevent the spread of zebra and quagga mussels in Montana waterways. The budget to do so remained about the same, but who’s paying for it changed a little.

The boat check station at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Kalispell office is one of the busiest in the state. Drivers hauling boats must stop here or at one of more than 30 others so officials can verify that no unwanted aquatic invaders are clinging to their boats.

Matt Boyer is in the fisheries program at FWP.

"So we have signs out front here. And it instructs them to pull in and loop around here."

Roadside pull-offs like this one require equipment and multiple staffers. There were more than 400 inspections at this check station alone last year,  and there have already been 90 this year since the check station opened in March.

"It’s early in the season, people are just kind of getting into fishing and boating, so it’s picking up," Boyer says.

Check stations like these are key to preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species in the state. Those mussels could cost Montana about $234 million a year, according to a report from the Montana Invasive Species Council earlier this year.

But prevention isn’t cheap. Two years ago, state lawmakers established new fees to raise millions of dollars for it.

"In 2017, the Legislature was confronted right at the start of the session with a major problem," says Willis Curdy, a Democratic state representative from Missoula.

In 2016, biologists found evidence that microscopic zebra and quagga mussels could be in Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs. The invasive species had devastated ecosystems and economies in other states. So legislators set to work funding prevention efforts.

"That legislation was to sunset in two years, where we believed that we’d have a better chance to study the whole issue and come up with a better and more longer-lasting funding mechanism."

That two year window ends this summer.

Enter House Bill 411, legislation that passed last week providing between $6.5 and $8 million annually to fund inspection stations, water monitoring and education. Curdy sponsored the bill. It answers a question that’s lingered since that 2017 session: Where will the funding come from?

The answer: Fishing, boating and hydropower. That’s a slightly different mix than before.

This year’s bill continues prevention fees on fishing licenses, but cuts their cost in half. It also adds between $35 and $75 to boat registration fees, depending on the vessel, and calls for out-of-state boats to purchase new AIS "prevention passes," which cost $30 for motorized vessels and $10 for non-motorized boats.

Curdy says the decrease on fishing license fees compensates for a small dip in license sales since the 2017 funding passed. Those changes won’t go into effect until licenses go on sale March 1, 2020.

The bill also increases fees on some hydroelectric producers in Montana, and decreases fees for others.

The 2017 legislation called hydropower fees a “bridge” measure that wouldn’t last indefinitely. They remain in place, but hydroelectric co-ops saw their fees scrapped in the new measure. Curdy says the bill adds a flexible funding structure for hydropower producers based on the size of the operation, and Montanans shouldn’t see any evidence of the fee on their bills.

"A good portion of that fee, that hydropower is shipped out of state and very few, if any, Montana residents will pay for it."

But he also says NorthWestern Energy, the largest hydroelectric producer in Montana, remains subject to the fee. They own 11 hydroelectric facilities in the state and serve 370,000 Montanans.

"I don’t anticipate a substantial rate increase. I would imagine the fee will be probably about the same or less," Curdy says.

Hydroelectric fees will raise more than $3 million of the funding for AIS prevention in Montana next year. Fishing license fees will generate about $2 million. Fees on boaters will generate an estimated $800,000; Around $300,000 of that will come from out of state. The bill also anticipates a little over $1 million in federal funding and calls for about $500,000 in state lodging tax revenue to go towards AIS prevention.

Curdy doesn’t expect out-of-state boaters to be deterred by the new fee.

"Our experience in the last year and a half with out-of-state boat owners is that they’re pretty well accepted to pay the $30. The $30 is well within line of what other neighboring states charge for out of state residents to come in and use their waters."

According to a 2017 document on AIS prevention strategies across the country prepared by the Department of Environmental Quality, fees on watercraft like this year’s prevention pass account for more than half of AIS funding across affected states. However, no other states charged hydroelectric producers to fund AIS prevention. Invasive mussel infestations can be very expensive headaches for hydroelectric dams.

Looking ahead, Curdy says he and other legislators are continuing to evaluate other funding options.

"A lot of us believe that the federal government needs to step up. Aquatic invasive species do not respect state lines."

Curdy sponsored a joint resolution that also passed this session asking Congress to pass federal legislation that will support states’ efforts funding the fight against the likes of zebra and quagga mussels.


Learn more about the threat of invasive mussels with SubSurface: Resisting Montana's Underwater Invaders.

Nick Mott is a reporter and podcast producer based in Livingston, Montana.
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