Mussel Matters

East Dakota Water Development District Manager Jay Gilbertson addresses this week’s meeting of the James River Water Development District in Yankton. 

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on issues facing the James River in eastern South Dakota.


For the James River Water Development District, it’s time to flex its mussel.

During this week’s board meeting in Yankton, the district joined the effort to determine if the zebra mussel — an aquatic invasive species (AIS) — has infiltrated the river. The mussel creates hazards for other aquatic life and for infrastructure such as municipal water pipes and irrigation systems.

B.J. Schall, AIS biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, solicited the JRWDD for assistance during this week’s meeting. He noted zebra mussels have grown rapidly in areas west of Yankton: Lewis and Clark Lake, the Missouri River below Gavins Point Dam and in Lake Yankton.

Each female zebra mussel can produce one million eggs a year. They can form colonies on top of each other, resulting in up to 700,000 individuals in a square meter.

“They’re very microscopic and difficult to find at first,” he said. “Once they arrive, they’re very difficult to eradicate.”

The growing zebra mussel presence raises the question on if — and to what extent — the mollusk holds a presence in the James River and other tributaries that feed into the Missouri River. Major events, such as flooding and high dam releases, can push infested waters into tributaries.

“There’s nothing that would serve as a barrier to stop the zebra mussels from getting into the James, Vermillion and Big Sioux rivers,” Schall said, referring to downstream tributaries for the Missouri River.

JRWDD board chairman Dan Klimisch said he has seen the zebra mussel’s damage on water systems. The mollusk could create similar problems for the water district, he noted.

“We have pipes 12 inches across and now you hardly pass anything through them (because of the infestations),” he said. “It’s very sobering.”

The sampling for zebra mussels would focus on southeast South Dakota rivers because of the rapid growth of the AIS in the region, Schall said.

The zebra mussel was found in 2014 at Lewis and Clark Lake around the marina’s hanging docks west of Yankton. In 2015, it was discovered in the Missouri River below Gavins Point Dam.

Schall noted the mollusk’s ability to move quickly to neighboring sites.

“We think they started at Lewis and Clark Lake, and the veligers passed through the dam,” he said. “They were also discovered at McCook Lake, which is an oxbow on the Missouri River. In 2017, they were discovered at Lake Yankton, close to the Missouri River.”

The GFP has undertaken limited AIS sampling in specific locations. The sites include Missouri River reservoirs and the lakes used for specific fish management actions.

However, the GFP can’t undertake such sampling on a massive scale, Schall said. The agency is asking for the JRWDD’s assistance in testing the long, meandering river.

“We’re limited in our ability to get around,” he said. “As far as the fisheries budget, the state is so large that we’re limited with our staff (in what we can do).”

The GFP sees the James River as particularly vulnerable for the introduction and growth of AIS, Schall said. He noted the discovery and increased activity of silver carp in the river.

 “As far as the James River, we don’t know a lot about it (in this aspect),” he said. “In terms of invasive species, we’re not sure what we’re going to find in the river system.”

Klimisch sees the problem from two perspectives. He not only serves as JRWDD chairman but also as Yankton County Commission chairman.

“As a county commissioner, if these (zebra mussels) are infiltrating the James River, we could see state and county bridges and infrastructure deteriorate,” he said.

The East Dakota Water Development District, based in Brookings, has already shown interest in AIS testing for the Big Sioux River, according to district manager Jay Gilbertson.

Last month, Schall met with Gilbertson and the East Dakota board. The GFP has collected water samples from the Big Sioux River for Environmental DNA (eDNA) lab testing. The method takes genetic material from a plant or animal found in the air, water or soil.

The eDNA method was chosen over other options that included tactile inspections (done by touch) and veliger tows (using sampling and monitoring).

Early detection provides the best way of initiating some sort of action, Gilbertson told the JRWDD board at this week’s meeting.

“It’s next to impossible to get rid of (zebra mussels),” he said. “If show them down, that’s the best we can get.”

In turn, early detection provides the ability to inform the water district’s stakeholders what to expect, Gilbertson said. The findings can also provide an early warning for other parts of the state.

“You can tell irrigators, it’s coming,” he said. “It’s hard to get people excited over (something happening currently at) Yankton, but this is more FYI for other water districts.”

Sampling has proven successful with tracking AIS in other states, Schall said. With that knowledge, GFP and other parties can start testing the James River relatively quickly, he said.

“We can develop a plan for the river and start collecting the samples,” he added.

While the zebra mussel has prompted the search, Schall noted other AIS could be found in the James River. Water samples are collected in bottles and sent to a lab for analysis.

“You test for a multitude of things,” he said. “We can test for zebra and quagga mussels, Asian carp, silver carp and other aquatic invasive species, including plants.”

While East Dakota has shown interest in eDNA testing, other methods have proven successful, Schall said.

“With tactile inspections, we found Asian clams near Yankton in the lower James River,” he said. “We have Asian clams up the Big Sioux River as far north as Canton.”

Gilbertson indicated he expects it’s not a question of if, but what, the testing reveals about the tributaries.

“It defies common sense to think that we have zebra mussels in western Minnesota and that it wouldn’t be washed into eastern South Dakota,” he said. “We’re in the process of coming up with a portal of how to sample and where to sample.”

The GFP has undertaken limited sampling in specific locations. The sites include Missouri River reservoirs and the lakes used for specific fish management actions. The testing has included Lake Yankton and the Lewis and Clark Lake marina area.

JRWDD staff member Rocky Knippling said his crews could take on the additional testing.

“We sample six sites along the James River, under bridges. We’re out there every two weeks,” he said. “Is there any data we can access?”

This year would present challenges because of the James River flooding, Knippling said.

“In a normal year, it would be a problem,” he said. “But it’s early July, and we’re going from minor to major flooding.”

The general public also plays a role, Schall said. The GFP currently uses citizen monitoring at Lake Kampeska near Watertown and at Swan Lake near Viborg.

JRWDD manager Dave Bartel was instructed to meet with Schall and to line up a plan for the board’s September meeting in Aberdeen.

“Our plans are to assist (GFP) with putting together a training session with my staff as well as those directors from the JRWDD board who will have the time to go out and do as much sampling as possible looking for the zebra mussels as well as any of the other mussels,” Bartel told the Press & Dakotan.

At this point, the JRWDD hasn’t been asked for any financial commitment, Bartel said.

“Right now, I see no need for funding for the project, but should there be need of funds I am sure that we would be interested in hearing any and all proposals,” he said. “I believe there was some talk about extending any and all training to the public, perhaps schools and or clubs that are interested in learning more about the zebra mussels and the problems that they are causing.”

Gilbertson cautioned other areas against becoming complacent that the zebra mussels would remain in certain waterways or one region of the state.

“We could gain a 2020 snapshot (with this survey),” he said. “Where there are open circles but no red dot, that doesn’t mean there’s no real concern. That’s not the case.”

Lewis and Clark Lake would provide an ideal training ground for learning about zebra mussels, Schall said.

“It’s terrible you have them, but Lewis and Clark is a great resource to look for zebra mussels,” he said.

Klimisch agreed, noting the immediacy of the problem in the Yankton area.

“I think we should have the training here. We’re just a 10-minute drive from Lewis and Clark Lake,” he said. “We could open it up for public training, because we have Ground Zero here. We could invite the whole state.”

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