The morning sun rises above unusually quiet waters of Clatsop County’s Cullaby Lake.
That is, until sirens blare and the lights flash and suddenly a high-speed chase erupts in the middle of the lake.
It’s a fast-tracking, high-powered jet boat, but there’s no crime for the officer to chase down – instead, this event is jet boat training, where speed and agility earn passing grades at Oregon’s Marine Patrol Academy.
The Oregon State Marine Board sponsors the annual academy that recently drew 35 officers from 31 counties and the Oregon State Police to the small coastal freshwater lake.
The officers participate in two weeks of training; some classroom, some in a swimming pool but much of it in boats that rotate through a dozen “scenario stations” where the officers face real life situations.
“The role players are all scripted,” said Dale Flowers, Oregon State Marine Board staff member who oraganizes the annual event. “They face probable cause, stop and consent issues in varied situations that are drawn from real life. The officer has to think on his feet and work with his partner.”
They are the men and the women who risk their lives to save yours when you get into dangerous water-based situations that are over your head.
It’s the sort of training that drew Deputy Joe Reeves from distant Wallowa County: “We’re dealing with people who are out trying to have a good time,” noted Reeves. “They are out on the water to have fun and so we approach every situation like that by making sure they have the right safety equipment on board. We check to make sure they have the right personal flotation devices, fire extinguisher and those kinds of things for safety.”
Reeves added that the instruction comes from experienced officers who guide the newcomers through the varied exercises - even simply coming alongside another boat – help me to prepare for summer duty at Wallowa Lake.
The students move their boats through a series of complex boating exercises; moving forward then backing up into tight quarters, towing another boat, and the proper way to come alongside another boat.
Last year, Oregon marine patrol officers made over fifty thousand contacts on the state’s varied waterways and they issued little more than 2400 citations.
The single greatest citation-worthy problem centers on PFD’s (Personal Flotation Devices) because people don’t wear them or worse they don’t carry them.
“We do a lot of hands on, added Flowers. “But basically the real work for them is going to begin when they go back to their home waters and put what they’ve learned here into practice there. And it’s a team – really, marine law enforcement is a family in this state.”
This year, the “family” will grow larger as law enforcement officers join a new environmental war against aquatic invasives.
While it hasn’t happened yet, tiny mussels called Quagga and Zebra could be in Oregon soon. While other invasives called New Zealand Mud Snails – are already here.
At Henry Hagg Lake in Washington County, state fishery biologist Rick Boatner spearheads a volunteer boat inspection station. He leads five teams of two inspectors each who will fan out across Oregon this spring to inspect boats and many locations.
He reached into a small plastic container and pulled out a handful of small, drab-gray, quagga mussel shells.
“This bunch came off one side of one prop at Lake Mead last summer.And as you can see, they cluster each other, so you get smaller ones on top of the bigger ones, so they grow on top of each other.”
The invasive mussels could arrive in Oregon by way of Nevada where the most recent infestation was discovered four years ago.
Boatner added that the invasives have cost state governments in the Great Lakes are hundreds of millions of dollars over the past three decades.
In that part of the country, the zebra mussel invasions have collapsed fisheries, taken over beaches and clogged miles of pipelines.
Each mussel filters a liter of water a day and removes nutrition from the water that in turn starves the fish that live in the area too.
Boatner added, “It is the last thing we ever want to see happen in Oregon."
They will be looking for signs of the mussels and snails that can hitchhike into Oregon’s waterways on boat’s motors, trailers – really, just about any marine surface.
It’s not just the boats, but the boots that anglers wear – especially the anglers that cast lures, baits of flies in different rivers and lakes across the United States.
He says the cure is easy enough: “Scrub! It’s that simple. After you get out of the water and before you get to another water body. A small brush will take care of ninety percent of the problem right there.”
So, how big is the risk of aquatic invasives coming to Oregon?
Oregon State Marine Board Aquatic Invasives expert, Glenn Dolphin, said: “They (Oregonians) should be very alarmed by the risk. It’s serious because it will affect everything in our water-rich region.”
Dolphin said that the mussels threaten more than recreation because they can live on practically any surface, and can easily infest drinking water pipelines, ag water lines and hydroelectric production facilities too.
“This is really the first program in Oregon that’s been focused on the aquatic invasives. We are trying to get ahead of the curve and be pro-active and preventative. This is really an aggressive first step that the state is taking on the aquatic invaders themselves.”
Serious business indeed, for it has already hit too close for comfort noted Dolphin. Washington officials recently came across a boat for sale in the Spokane area that had a bilge full of quagga mussels.
The boat had traveled to Spokane from Lake Mead, and fortunately it hadn’t touched any Oregon waters. Dolphin noted that if it had, water based recreation would change forever.
The new AIS inspection program is paid through a $5 permit for both motorized and non-motorized boats alike.
Motorized boat owners will see the increase in their boat registration.
But if you paddle a canoe or a kayak or row down a whitewater river in a watercraft that’s ten feet or longer, you’ll need to buy the new Aquatic Invasives Permit for each boat that goes in the water.
You must carry the AIS permit on your person when you are in the boat on an Oregon waterway.
“We’re asking people to look past the five dollar bill that you have to pay and look to where the money is going and what we’re doing with that money. This money doesn’t get lost in the general fund, it’s dedicated money that goes back into a direct benefit to the boaters that pay into it.”
Recreation managers are posting new signs at many boat ramps across Oregon too. The posters ask boat owners to inspect their watercrafts and thoroughly drain and clean them too.
Meanwhile, Rick Boatner noted that the battle lines are drawn – now is the time to make certain the aquatic invasives don’t land in Oregon waterways.
“The simplest means and cheapest means is to deal with them right now, because once they become established, then we’re going to deal with containment just to protect what we take for granted today: fresh water and electricity at a cheap rate. Everything will change.”