The development of quagga and zebra mussel (dreissenids) monitoring programs in the Pacific Northwest provides a unique opportunity to evaluate a regional invasive species detection effort early in its development. Recent studies suggest that the ecological and economic costs of a dreissenid infestation in the Pacific Northwest of the USA would be significant. Consequently, efforts are underway to monitor for the presence of dreissenids. However, assessments of whether these efforts provide for early detection are lacking. We use information collected from 2012 to 2014 to characterize the development of larval dreissenid monitoring programs in the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington in the context of introduction and establishment risk. We also estimate the effort needed for high-probability detection of rare planktonic taxa in four Columbia and Snake River reservoirs and assess whether the current level of effort provides for early detection. We found that the effort expended to monitor for dreissenid mussels increased substantially from 2012 to 2014, that efforts were distributed across risk categories ranging from high to very low, and that substantial gaps in our knowledge of both introduction and establishment risk exist. The estimated volume of filtered water required to fully census planktonic taxa or to provide high-probability detection of rare taxa was high for the four reservoirs examined. We conclude that the current level of effort expended does not provide for high-probability detection of larval dreissenids or other planktonic taxa when they are rare in these reservoirs. We discuss options to improve early detection capabilities.