Some efforts against aquatic invasives switch from prevention to cure

Cluster of mussels
A cluster of zebra mussels rest on a piece of driftwood, Thursday, July 12, 2012. Some local governments and lake associations are taking a more aggressive stance in fighting invasive species.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

Frustrated by the state Department of Natural Resource's lack of progress in combating invasive species, some local governments and lake associations are changing their focus from prevention to cure.

Among them is the Gull Chain of Lakes Association, which took the lead in the fight against invasive species in eight popular and highly developed lakes in the heart of cabin country north of Brainerd, Minn. After zebra mussels were found in Gull Lake in 2010, the association was the first to set up a decontamination station to clean boats to prevent the spread of zebra mussels.

Although the group still spends some money on prevention by helping pay for boat inspectors, it now plans to donate money to the new University of Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species research center.

"That in a nutshell, is where we're going to start putting our money, because that's what you need -- somebody that's going to come up with a way to control zebra mussels," association vice chair Ken Stover said. "We're scared to death what it's going to do to the fishing."

In the summer of 2011, the association cleaned 642 boats to keep zebra mussels from spreading to other nearby lakes. But the next summer, it pulled the plug on the project.

"We ended up having some issues with the DNR as far as their new rules and regulations," said Stover, who said the department' effort to slow the spread of zebra mussels is ineffective. "We had to follow theirs specifically versus our own."

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Another challenge was finding workers to run the decontamination unit from sunup to sundown. But Stover said the association was willing to spend the $60,000 it cost to hire workers to operate the unit for the summer.

"You can't fight a fire for an hour and then leave and expect the fire to go out. It just doesn't work."

Stover said lake cabin owners wanted an aggressive approach that would decontaminate boats that left the lake and boats that came from other waters infested with any invasive species.

He said state Department of Natural Resources rules limited how often and where boats could be cleaned.

"It got to the point where it was just not effective for us to do it," Stover said. "You can't fight a fire for an hour and then leave and expect the fire to go out. It just doesn't work."

An hour and a half northwest in Hubbard County, the focus is still on prevention, and so far it's worked. None of the lakes that are concentrated in the southern part of the county near Park Rapids are infested with zebra mussels.

Local governments and lake associations raised $140,000 this year to hire 22 boat inspectors and set up a decontamination station to clean boats using Hubbard County lakes.

Boats are cleaned using a pressure washer with hot water. The unit was set up this summer in the small tourist town of Dorset. Watercraft sent to the decontamination station by inspectors at lake access points are cleaned free. The county breaks with DNR regulations by charging a $25 fee to decontaminate boats at the owners' request.

Local officials say only four boats were decontaminated this summer, but they expect increased traffic next year as watercraft owners learn about the service.

It's the most aggressive program outside the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, said Ken Grob coordinates the aquatic invasive species program for the Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations.

"In terms of the amount of money we've raised and the number of inspectors," Grob said. "And that scares me when I see ours being short of what I think ought to be done and not anywhere near as much is being done in some of the other counties."

But Grob, who worries about sustaining local spending long term, would like to see more state funding. This year the Hubbard County initiative included just $7,500 in state grants.

"I don't think that I'm going to be asking for less money from our townships cities and county," he said. "But hopefully I won't have to ask for much more and we can get a supplement."

It's hard to find good data on how much local groups are spending to fight invasive species. A partial survey of members by the Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations found that from 2010 to 2012, local governments increased spending on invasive species by more than 50 percent. Volunteer funding increased by 35 percent.

Local spending on aquatic invasive species equals or exceeds the $8.5 million DNR budget for invasive species programs, said Jeff Forester, executive director of the group Minnesota Lakes and Rivers.

"It's not sustainable. I don't want to say it's diminished, because the data we found show that it's increasing dramatically at this point," Forester said. "But what I'm hearing from people as a travel around the state is, 'we can't keep this up, we need some help.'"

Forester said unequal local funding and shifting priorities are creating a patchwork of programs that leaves big holes across the state.

"What we need is a framework that local communities can go to to use and funding to jumpstart these programs around the state," he said. "And we have neither of those things right now."

DNR Invasive Species Unit Supervisor Ann Pierce agrees the state should provide more funding for local efforts and said local partnerships are critical to preventing the spread of invasive species. Pierce said the state can't afford a massive program to inspect every boat using Minnesota lakes.

"But I think the idea of some sort of funds to help support those partners through a grant program is something that we think is important," she said. "You know, hopefully we can get to a point where we're providing them with enough money to support the programs that they want."

Pierce said in 2014 the agency will have about $1.2 million in grants available for local aquatic invasive species programs statewide.

The agency also offers assistance with free signs, educational materials and state paid boat inspectors.

Pierce said the DNR is asking the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources for $5.18 million to assist local efforts.

She said there might be other funding source as well, but those decisions are up to the state legislature.

Local organizations are asking the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund for $28 million to fund Aquatic Invasive Species programs.