An­dorra’s Lance But­ler grows mighty mus­sels

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While Roxbor­ough is fa­mously home to nu­mer­ous civil ser­vants, es­pe­cially cops and fire­men, An­dorra’s Lance But­ler has among the most un­usual city jobs.

He’s grow­ing mus­sels. Thou­sands of mus­sels. To place back into the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. And it’s sur­pris­ingly im­por­tant work.

A se­nior sci­en­tist in Philadel­phia Wa­ter’s Of­fice of Water­sheds, Lance was star­ing into a mi­cro­scope last Thurs­day af­ter­noon, mea­sur­ing and as­sess­ing the health of baby mus­sels no larger than a grain of sand. He was sit­ting in a lab­o­ra­tory, what he calls “a liv­ing breath­ing lab­o­ra­tory,” tucked into the back of the Fair­mount Wa­ter Works, Philly Wa­ter’s great mu­seum of the city’s wa­ter his­tory housed in the iconic build­ing be­low the Art Mu­seum. The lab dou­bles as the Mus­sel Hatch­ery, an ex­hibit in the Wa­ter Works where you can visit to learn about mus­sels too — and some­times see Lance work­ing.

The unas­sum­ing white plas­tic buck­ets that sur­rounded him on shelves, with a spaghetti tan­gle of clear plas­tic hoses run­ning into and out of them, held thou­sands of baby mus­sels in var­i­ous stages of their life cy­cles. Fresh­wa­ter mus­sels are bi­valves, two-shelled mol­lusks like clams and oys­ters, cousins of the marine ver­sions you eat in mari­nara. Lance says th­ese crea­tures are “bio-sen­tinels, the ca­naries in the river’s coal mine,” as they crave fresh, clean wa­ter, but have no abil­ity to es­cape a pol­lu­tion event — they can’t pick up and move away. If pol­lu­tion strikes a river, mus­sels are doomed.

Con­se­quently, over 70 per­cent of the world’s 700 mus­sel species are at risk of ex­tinc­tion, and fresh­wa­ter mus­sels are among the most en­dan­gered Amer­i­can an­i­mals. Many were ex­tir­pated — made lo­cally ex­tinct — in the Delaware River basin, hence Lance’s project. But why does this mat­ter? And why is the city spend­ing money on this?

“Mus­sels have a huge im­pact on wa­ter qual­ity,” Lance told me while un­screw­ing a jar con­tain­ing baby yel­low lamp mus­sels. As mus­sels an­chor them­selves in a river’s bot­tom and fil­ter al­gae out of the wa­ter, “one mus­sel fil­ters 10 to 20 gal­lons of wa­ter a day. With a mil­lion mus­sels in a river, that’s 20 mil­lion gal­lons of wa­ter. They re­move nu­tri­ents, they re­move solids, mak­ing the wa­ter more clear, and they re­move harm­ful things like E. coli and other bac­te­ria.”

Wa­ter is cleaner and safer for us be­cause of the work of mus­sels.

That’s the key to why the city is in­vest­ing in this. In ad­di­tion to restor­ing to our rivers the plants and an­i­mals that be­long there, Lance says, “mus­sels save money. If our wa­ter is cleaner go­ing into our in­take pipes, clean­ing the wa­ter is eas­ier and cheaper for the Wa­ter De­part­ment.” So spend­ing money here saves money else­where.

And if you love to fish in the Schuylkill, you’ll es­pe­cially love mus­sels. He says mus­sels prac­tice “ter­raform­ing,” chang­ing their habi­tat. “With mus­sels fil­ter­ing the wa­ter, its clar­ity im­proves. Light can shine deeper into the wa­ter, so there is more sub­merged veg­e­ta­tion. And the plants hold sed­i­ment down, mak­ing bet­ter habi­tat for fish.” So the more mus­sels we have, the bet­ter the river is for fish (and fish­ing).

He also opened a larger lamp mus­sel for me, show­ing me a dark sec­tion in­side the small soft body of what is a mother mus­sel. The dark spot was ac­tu­ally thou­sands of glochidia, lar­val mus­sels, hid­ing in­side the mother. Th­ese lar­vae don’t have the bi­valve shells and look like com­pletely dif­fer­ent or­gan­isms — but they are what hatches from mus­sel eggs. When the glochidia are ready for the next phase, some mama mus­sels have lures that at­tract the cor­rect host fish over, and the fe­male “spits” the glochidia at the fish, the lar­vae at­tach­ing them­selves to the gills of the fish, “snap­ping like Pac­man onto its gills.” And the lar­val mus­sels go for a ride.

“This is how they dis­perse them­selves through­out a habi­tat,” he told me. “The fish are their Uber ride up­river.”

When ready, the glochidia trans­form again into small mus­sels and drop to the river bot­tom — where some species might live for as many as 100 years!

So the Mus­sel Hatch­ery also in­cludes fish like yel­low perch, the un­wit­ting host in this ex­tra­or­di­nary project. This week, But­ler and other project sci­en­tists from the Part­ner­ship for the Delaware Es­tu­ary and the Acad­emy of Nat­u­ral Sci­ences will be dis­cussing what hap­pens to the 15,000 baby mus­sels now stored in hold­ing ponds at sev­eral lo­ca­tions in the re­gion, all prod­ucts of this process. Ul­ti­mately, they will be­gin re­leas­ing mus­sels back into the wild. And hope they take.

Lance is also se­nior sci­en­tist in the long-awaited restora­tion of the Manayunk Canal, a project which is mov­ing ahead and “should go out to bid next year. The canal will turn into a beau­ti­ful amenity for the com­mu­nity.” One of the project’s goals is to get wa­ter flow­ing back into and out of the canal again, to re­con­nect it to the river from which it has been sev­ered. And mus­sels will def­i­nitely be a part of the pic­ture. Philly Wa­ter main­tains a web­site, “The Mighty Mus­sel,” to learn more about this project (mighty­mus­sel. com), and for school teach­ers in­trigued by this, mus­sels can visit your class­room as well, and your school can help bring mus­sels back to our rivers.

Visit the Mus­sel Hatch­ery soon, and per­haps you’ll see Roxbor­ough’s own Lance But­ler per­form­ing his crit­i­cal work, brin­ing mighty mus­sels back to Philadel­phia rivers.

The Wa­ter De­part­ment’s Lance But­ler, a res­i­dent of An­dorra, work in his Mus­sel Hatch­ery in the Fair­mount Wa­ter Works.

Smaller than a grain of sand and with see-through shells to boot, here are some of the mus­sels Lance But­ler is grow­ing at the Wa­ter Works.

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