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State cash brings counties new muscle in invasive species fight

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Monitoring zebra mussels
Eric Fieldseth, with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, examines a rock while conducting zebra mussel monitoring in Minnehaha Creek Tuesday, June 18, 2013 in Minnetonka, Minn.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News, File

Local aquatic invasive species programs vary widely around Minnesota. Some counties fund aggressive programs with help from lake association fees and taxes from lake improvement districts. Others have nothing.   

That scattershot approach has long been a weak link in the fight to stop the lake-to-lake movement of zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil and other species damaging Minnesota waterways.

• Interactive map: See where invasive species have spread across Minn.

More help, though, is on the way. The tax bill signed earlier this week by Gov. Mark Dayton builds in $10 million more a year in state spending targeted to local governments for programs to fight the spread of aquatic invasive species. 

Counties and lake organizations say that consistent funding source, which starts this summer, will give their efforts a big boost. 

It's a turning point in the effort to protect lakes and rivers, said Jeff Forester, executive director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates. A reliable, ongoing funding source was needed "and this seems to fit the bill pretty well," he said. "I think we can significantly lower the risk over the long haul with a funding mechanism like this."

A common, long-term problem

Minnesota has about two dozen aquatic invasive plants and animals. Some, like common carp, were introduced in the 1880's and have been spreading for decades. They're now widely distributed across much of Minnesota.  

Other invasive species, like zebra mussels, appeared more recently, arriving through the Great Lakes in the ballast water of ocean going ships and spreading to inland lakes in many states, including more than 160 Minnesota lakes and streams.

Invasive plants can be transported when they catch on boats or trailers. Zebra mussels can attach to boats or docks, and the tiny, young mussels can travel undetected in water left in boats or bait containers. 

Harvesting milfoil from Lake Calhoun
Mark Mettler uses a rake to pull milfoil from the shoreline of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, Minn. in 2010.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News, File

The most common prevention efforts include boat and trailer inspections at popular public access points and in some places, pressure sprayers to wash off any invasives. 

  The new money will go to counties based on the number of boat landings and watercraft parking spaces. The idea is to target the cash to counties with the most heavily used lakes.

Aquatic invasive species are a critical threat to Minnesota's environment and it's important to channel the money directly to local governments rather than simply giving more to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said state Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, author of the funding bill.

"We're going to supplement what the DNR is doing with local dollars and local people. I think it's got a pretty good chance of being successful," Skoe said. "We have a large number of lake associations that are interested and involved already and I think the local effort will be more productive."

Cooperation key in new efforts

Skoe said he purposely put very few conditions on how the money is used, so counties can decide the best approach and be free to try new ideas. 

Counties will need to sign an agreement with the DNR and submit plans for new programs such as regional watercraft inspection stations or access points where boat inspections are required.

Crow Wing County already has an inspection program that last year intercepted several contaminated boats, Commissioner Paul Thiede said. 

Crow Wing expects to get about $400,000 a year in aid. The state money will stabilize local efforts, Thiede said, although he's pushing for counties to pool their state aid and avoid program duplication. 

"We don't know a lot of the effectiveness of dollars spent versus results gotten," Thiede said. "I'm looking for the best way to leverage those dollars into a more coordinated fact finding about what's effective, what's not effective, how are the dollars best spent."

Discussions are underway to establish a Mississippi River headwaters coalition including Clearwater, Beltrami, Cass, Hubbard, Itasca, Aitkin, Crow Wing and Morrison counties.

The new efforts means counties will now get more aquatic invasive species program funding than the DNR, which spends about $8 million annually to combat the pests. 

The agency, though, supports the idea of money going to local governments, said Ann Pierce, who oversees the DNR's aquatic invasive species programs.

Partnerships with local governments have been critical in the invasive species fight, "but there hasn't been a lot of money for that on the ground effort," Pierce said.

The DNR, she added, will likely need to expand its inspector certification program to meet a growing demand for boat access inspectors on Minnesota lakes. The Legislature approved $400,000 for the agency to train inspectors and help counties develop plans.

Counties expect to receive the first invasive species aid payment in July.