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Invaders: 1 Inspectors: 0

Oregon's first line of defense against outside aquatic invasive species might see its time cut back unless a new source of income can make up budget shortfalls.

A bill that would have added smaller boats as well as some kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to the $5-a-year permit program to fund the fight against aquatic invasive species was left dead in the water when the Oregon Legislature adjourned July 7.

House Bill 2321 was supposed to make up for the $150,000 shortfall in the $2 million biennial budget for aquatic invasive species prevention programs and its mandatory boat inspections at roadside checkpoints run through the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Check stations like the one on Interstate 5 outside of Ashland likely will see fewer hours and shorter inspection seasons, said Rick Boatner, the program's coordinator.

"With a tight budget, that is going to require cuts in some personnel time," Boatner said.

However, Boatner said he will seek more federal funding to patch those financial holes in the program that inspects boats for aquatic hitchhikers such as quagga and zebra mussels.

"If those federal funds come through, we'd be back to normal," Boatner said. "It would not be able to grow the program, just keep it static."

Paid for by $5 annual permits for boats more than 10 feet long, the program inspected 16,825 boats last year, discovering 17 cases of quagga or zebra mussels that were decontaminated at the stations.

With 7,466 inspections last year, the Ashland station is by far the state's busiest.

The bill sought to drop the minimum length of boats needing permits from 10 feet to 8 feet. That would have brought smaller kayaks and some stand-up paddleboards into the program.

The bill included language that would have required all boats to be drained of bilge water, live-well water and all other water before leaving boat-ramp areas as a way to keep boats from transporting plants and other organisms between waterways.

Language dropping the minimum size for boats in need of the invasive species permit was in the original bill, but it was absent from the version that sailed through the House April 26, records show.

It was assigned to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, where the 8-foot provision was returned, records show. As with current permits on larger nonmotorized boats, the permits are transferable so someone with three boats would need only one permit.

The amended bill was referred to the joint Ways and Means Committee May 30 and received no work sessions or votes before the session ended.

Created by the Oregon Legislature in 2009, the invasive species program is seen as the first line of defense against environmental invaders such as zebra and quagga mussels.

One estimate put an annual cost of dealing with invasive mussels in the Columbia River alone at $25 million should they populate that river.

There is no penalty or cost for a boat owner whose vessel is found to be contaminated while at the inspection station. However, those launching boats with any aquatic vegetation on them risk a $287 fine.

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