During Ken Kreif’s 27 years in the military, he taught young airmen at McConnell Air Force Base how to survive in a chemical environment. It’s simple, Kreif said, once you know the first rule.
“You assume everything is contaminated until you validate that it is not,” he said.
Now, Kreif is trying to use that same principle to educate people about how to prevent the spread of the zebra mussel, an aquatic nuisance species contaminating Kansas waters.
“You assume all water is contaminated until you validate that it is not,” Kreif said.
Kreif has dedicated the past decade of his life to spreading the word about the small, sharp, D-shaped creatures named for the yellow-brown stripes on their hard shells. They look like small clams, but they have hair-like legs with suction cups that attach to any hard surface.
According to the Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism website, zebra mussels cost an estimated $145 million per year to control in electric generating plants.
They clog pipes, kill off native Kansas wildlife, create algae blooms, disrupt the food chain and their sharp shells cut bare hands and feet.
Since arriving to the Great Lakes in 1988 in the ballast water of ships coming from the Black and Caspian Seas, the mussels have spread to 20 states’ big and small lakes, hundreds of inland lakes and six major rivers all the way to California.
Lake Michigan has an 80-mile stretch covered with zebra mussels, and an estimated six quadrillion are estimated to be on the bottom of Lake Erie. That’s 15 zeros.
The mussels were first spotted in the El Dorado Reservoir in 2003. Since then, they have spread to at least 30 other lakes in Kansas.
Kreif is a fisherman, and he has a home on Lake Kahola near Emporia. His lake doesn’t have zebra mussels, and he is working hard to make sure it never does.
“I didn’t buy a lakefront property where I have to wear shoes to go in the water,” he said.
Kreif said now when buying a boating license, the state recommends wearing shoes when wading in contaminated lakes because of the sharp shells. When mussels die after five years, their shells wash up on shore where they cut people walking on the sand.
The mussels can filter a liter or quart of water in one day. They suck in plankton, the microscopic food in lakes, leaving water clear and little fish with nothing to eat.
For four years, Council Grove had zebra mussels multiplying in their town’s water supply. In the fifth year, the town had no water pressure because the pipes were clogged shut with zebra mussels.
It cost $850,000 to fix, but they will have to continue to clean out filters in the lake because once zebra mussels arrive in a lake they are impossible to extinguish without killing everything else.
Females can lay 1 million eggs in one year, and 100,000 usually survive. The eggs are microscopic, and during their first four months mussels are no bigger than a pencil tip so they are hard to spot on boats or buckets.
Adults can live up to 30 days outside of water.
The only way to stop them from spreading is to not move water from one body of water to another, and to clean, drain and dry a boat after every use. Anything that has come into contact with water must be dry for at least 30 days before it goes in another body of water or sprayed with 140 degree water for five seconds.
“I don’t think people want to contaminate the water,” Kreif said. “Nobody really understands how easy it is to contaminate another body of water.”