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Boaters must pull the plugs under bill

Oregon boaters will have to pull their plugs and drain their crafts before leaving boat ramps under a proposed law aimed at strengthening the state's fight against aquatic invasive species.

House Bill 2321 now winding through the Oregon Legislature would require that operators of any boat with a drain plug would have to pull the plug and remove all standing water, any of which could contain aquatic hitchhikers such as quagga mussels or water fleas, according to the bill's latest draft.

The legislation comes at the behest of the Oregon State Marine Board and others who see a need for more protections against invasives than Oregon's boat-inspection stations like the one along Interstate 5 at the Ashland weigh station.

"It will complete the tool kit in a lot of ways," said Rick Boatner, aquatic invasive species prevention coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Violators would face fines of up to $50 for motorized boats and $30 for nonmotorized boats, the bill states.

The bill's language exempts boats without drain plugs, such as inflatable and hardshell kayaks. It also exempts law enforcement and other emergency-responder watercrafts.

The bill would make it a Class C misdemeanor for those hauling boats to bypass a check station, and would give clear authority to police officers to force boat haulers who skip boat stations to return for an inspection and, if necessary, decontamination.

Current wording in the law has led to different interpretations by various police agencies at the boat-inspection stations on I-5, Highway 97 near Lakeview, Highway 101 near Brookings and Highway 395 and Interstate 84 in northeast Oregon, Boatner said.

Those cited for bypassing inspection stations currently face citations with $110 fines. The bill would raise the maximum fine to $250.

The bill also calls for civil penalties of up to $6,250 for people who knowingly transport aquatic invasive species banned in Oregon.

The bill passed the Oregon House by a 54-3 vote April 26, and the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on it Monday. A committee vote has not been scheduled.

The bill is supported by Trout Unlimited and other groups.

The boat-inspection program is meant to stave off infestations by aquatic invasive species that could overrun Oregon waterways and potentially cost the state tens of millions of dollars annually.

One estimate puts a $25 million price tag on dealing with invasive mussels in the Columbia River alone in one year should they populate that river.

Already this year, a 41-foot yacht infested with zebra mussels was intercepted at the I-84 check station. In April, a boat infested with quagga mussels was discovered and decontaminated at the Ashland station, according to ODFW.

The program costs about $500,000 annually and is paid by $5 annual fees for invasive-species passes needed for every boat 10 feet and longer when launched in public waterways.

The Oregon Legislature in 2009 created invasive species boat permits to fund a coordinated effort to ensure that environmental wrecking balls such as zebra and quagga mussels don't enter Oregon on boats coming from infected waterways, such as Arizona's Lake Havasu and Lake Mead.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.