Anxiety and anger as zebra mussel invasion spreads

Zebra mussel, native snail
Bob Gilsdorf, 76, holds a rock with a zebra mussel on the left and a native snail on the right on the dock of his Pelican Lake home on Thursday, July 12, 2012. According to the Department of Natural Resources, zebra mussels are infesting lakes around Minnesota, including Pelican and seven other lakes and one river in Otter Tail County alone.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

For many Minnesotans, summer evenings at the lake are perfect for a refreshing swim after a hot day. But if you swim in Pelican Lake, a popular spot in Otter Tail County, you'd better wear shoes or risk getting sliced by razor-sharp zebra mussel shells.

"I'm not talking just little cuts but razor-blade cuts, like drops of blood up the dock," said Erika Johnson, whose family has owned a cabin on Pelican Lake for three generations.

Since zebra mussels first showed up in large numbers in Pelican Lake a couple of years ago, residents and visitors have learned to protect their feet by wearing shoes in the water. Johnson said that's not the only change. She points to the green-tinted water with clumps of algae bobbing on the waves.

"We have never had this before, ever," she said.

Pelican Lake is one of more than 60 Minnesota lakes infested with zebra mussels. The state Department of Natural Resources infested waters list shows that 65 lakes in 15 counties have zebra mussel populations. When rivers and wetlands are added, the number grows to 100.

As zebra mussels spread across the state, there is growing tension between lake property owners and the state Department of Natural Resources over how to deal with the invasive species.

Some lake associations contend that the DNR isn't doing enough to prevent the spread of zebra mussels. DNR officials say constant complaints and criticism are hindering their efforts.

Zebra mussels can cause more algae and weed growth. They filter the lake water, allowing sunlight to penetrate more deeply. That causes more plant growth.

The changed conditions also kill most native clams. That really bothers Johnson.

"Oh, my gosh," she exclaimed on a recent visit to the lake. "Here's finally a live one."

As a friend swimming near the dock dumped a mass of zebra mussels on the dock, Johnson picked up a native clam covered in zebra mussels. In the other hand she held an empty clam shell also encrusted with zebra mussels.

"They're not even finding native clams now," she said. "That to me is really sad because they've always been part of this lake and you always collected their shells as kids, and now they're just not here."

Johnson said watching the lake she grew up on change so quickly makes her realize what's at stake in the battle against zebra mussels.

"It's not some lake far away. It's our lake," she said. "Everybody's got the lake that is their lake, that they visit or live on or enjoy on weekends. And now when it's your lake that's affected, it hits home and that's why people are freaking out."

Thousands of other Minnesotans are anxious about the future of their lakes.

Aquatic invasive species are nothing new in Minnesota lakes. Plants like eurasian milfoil have been around for years. But zebra mussels appear to be a game changer, said Jeff Forester, executive director of the Minnesota Seasonal Recreational Property Owners Coalition. "I have never been involved in an issue that has this much grass-roots and this much passion and this much mobilization around the state," said Forester, who has worked as a lobbyist on lake property issues for 20 years. "It's a truly grass-roots, uncontrollable push as people understand the threats to their lakes and their economies and their way of life."

That push for action, directed at the Department of Natural Resources, is creating friction between lake property organizations and department officials.

The tension boiled over last month at a meeting in St. Paul between DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr and a half dozen people representing lake property groups across the state.

Several lake association members at the meeting say the commissioner shouted at them and demanded they stop wasting the agency's time with constant complaints and demands. Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations representative Terry Kalil said the message was clear. "It was 'We don't want to hear from you; your input is not valued; your volunteer service is not appreciated or welcomed,'" Kalil said.

DNR representatives who were at the meeting played down the confrontation but concede the meeting was heated.

Landwehr said he was frustrated by the volume of complaints and questions about the aquatic invasive species program.

"Really, at this meeting I said, 'Look, we've got the money we're going to get, we've got the authority we're going to get, we've got a program we've got to implement. So I'm asking people to let us do our job and get the work done rather than going back and forth about what could be done or couldn't be done or ought to be done better or isn't being done enough,'" he recalled. "I was hoping people would understand we need to work together rather than just have a bunch of rock throwing."

The DNR must work within its $8.5 million budget for combating aquatic invasive species, said Landwehr, who suggests the best way lake property owners can help the agency is to lobby the Legislature for more money.

Landwehr said the six people in the meeting are among the most vocal on the issue of zebra mussels. He said they represent only a small percentage of lakeshore residents.

But the six people in that meeting with the commissioner work for organizations that represent tens of thousands of lake property owners from the Twin Cities metro area to northern Minnesota. They admit to aggressively challenging the DNR's invasive species programs and complain the DNR moves too slowly.

Kalil, vice president of the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations, said his group applied for a $7,500 invasive species grant early this year for educational materials. The grant application lists March 5 as the date grants would be awarded, so the Becker County group planned a major education outreach for the May 12 fishing opener.

"We got word that we received our grant two days before fishing opener," Kalil said. "Two days. As a result we had nothing ready. To me that is an epic failure."

But the DNR considers that a minor glitch. Landwehr said that the agency is constantly determining staff priorities and that was why the grant awards were delayed.

The lake property groups also complain the DNR has been slow to hire aquatic invasive species inspectors who staff boat landings. The agency announced in May it would have 150 inspectors in the field this summer. A DNR official said so far 123 inspectors have been hired because hiring so many people takes time.

Members of lake groups also want to know how the DNR is using decontamination units designed to clean boats with high-pressure hot water. The agency added new units this year and now has 23 decontamination units deployed. The DNR's regional coordinators determine where to send the units.

Landwehr said the barrage of criticism, questions and demands sap staff time and morale.

"Telling us to do more without telling us what we drop in order to do more is really not very productive," he said. "A lot of what we're dealing with now and a lot of the frustration I think is that stuff that is not particularly constructive, not particularly useful, simply asks us to do things we aren't going to be able to do."

The DNR recently announced it is formalizing a stakeholder group to advise the agency on aquatic invasive species, but it has yet to determine the criteria for membership. The group is expected to be in place by late this year.

The heart of this tension appears to be a fundamental disagreement on how to deal with zebra mussels.

Lake groups want the DNR to take a "stop the invasion" approach. The agency is focused on slowing the spread.

Steve Hirsch, the director of the Division of Ecological and Water Resources for the DNR, said the agency has to maintain a balanced approach on aquatic invasive species.

"We're trying to track a middle ground where we're taking actions we think will help prevent the spread ... but not doing things that are going to impede access to our lakes," he said. "That's the strategy the DNR is trying to use right now."

That strategy has some lake association leaders so frustrated that they are looking for ways to go around the DNR and create their own initiatives to protect their lakes.

Some might restrict public access or hire private inspectors to staff boat ramps, actions that likely would run afoul of DNR regulations or state law.

Forester, the head of the seasonal property group, said he worries the conflict between lake property organizations and the DNR will result in a patchwork of initiatives.

But on the other hand, Forester said, conflict could lead to positive change.

"When local people are out ahead of the issue, that creates conflict," he said. "I think that's OK and appropriate. I think that's how these things happen. It's that old idea: If the people lead, the leaders will follow. And while it's true, it's not very comfortable."

It also takes time. Forester worries the state doesn't have much time to contain the spread of zebra mussels.