Boaters using North Texas waters are now legally required to drain their boats and take other precautions to prevent the further spread of invasive and destructive zebra mussels.
Using new authority granted during the last legislative session, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission approved rules that require boaters in certain counties to take the additional steps.
The new rules, which are set to take effect in late December or early January, apply to all public waters in Collin, Cooke, Dallas, Denton, Fannin, Grayson, Hood, Jack, Kaufman, Montague, Palo Pinto, Parker, Rockwall, Stephens, Tarrant, Wise and Young counties.
“The whole effort is to try and keep these zebra mussels where they are right now,” said Dave Terry, chief of fisheries management and research.
Zebra mussels, which are native to Russia, multiply rapidly and can cause increased bacteria levels in waterways.
Under the new rules, people using boats who are leaving or approaching public waters will be required to take all reasonable steps to drain all water from their vessels — including live wells, bilges, motors and any other receptacles or water intake systems — that resulted from contact with public water, according to details released by the state commission.
The new rules will apply to all types and sizes of boats, whether powered or not, personal watercraft, sailboats or any other vessel used on public waters.
The new rules also limit movement of live fish and live bait, according to officials.
Live fish cannot be transported in water that comes from the body of water in which they were caught.
Live bait that is personally caught can only be used in the water it came from.
Fishermen will be allowed to transport and use commercially purchased live bait, if they have a receipt that identifies the source of the bait.
Any movement from one access point to another on the same lake during the same day would not require drainage.
The rule also includes exemptions for emergencies and governmental activities involving collection of water.
Marine sanitary systems are exempt from the new regulations.
Zebra mussels were first documented in Texas in April 2009 in Lake Texoma.
They soon spread farther into the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Ray Roberts Lake and Lewisville Lake. The most recent zebra mussel discovery was in Belton Lake in Central Texas, Terry said.
“Their presence in [Belton Lake] presents problems for any reservoir, including the Colorado River system, the Brazos and Guadalupe,” Terry said. “Definitely the zebra mussels have taken a jump in the wrong direction and we’re trying to do what we can to keep them from being spread by recreational vehicles.”
Terry said awareness of the problem is increasing and that parks and wildlife officials are working with river authorities across the state to continue educating the boating public.
“The public can be eyes and ears,” Terry said. “We need a coalition of people also looking for these organisms and reporting them back to us. This site is a tool they can use to do that. The discovery in [Belton Lake] was made through a public mussel watch program we have in the state.”
Parks and Wildlife spokesman Mike Cox said the punishment for boaters who do not follow the rules is still unclear. So far, only one case has been filed against a boater.
“It’s complicated to prove legally. What we really need is voluntary compliance from the public. We need the public to understand the high stakes of what will happen if those zebra mussels continue to spread,” Cox said. “This is just such a critical environmental issue for Texas.”
For more information on zebra mussels, how to clean, drain and dry a boat and how to report possible zebra mussel sightings, visit www.texasinvasives.org.
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875 and via Twitter at @BjlewisDRC.