For the first time in Minnesota, boats would be required to undergo checks for aquatic invasive species at a regional checkpoint before entering four Wright County lakes under a proposal that's the subject of a public hearing Wednesday night in Annandale.
The proposal is being closely watched statewide. Proponents of the pilot project say the current system of checking boats at public accesses isn't enough to stop the spread of invasive species such as zebra mussels and starry stonewort.
"They're looking for a way to provide protection for our lakes in a way that's more sustainable than putting an inspector at every single boat ramp in the state," said Jeff Forester, executive director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates.
The pilot project was developed by the Wright County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Greater Lake Sylvia Association and other partners, with funding help from the Initiative Foundation.
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It would require boats to be checked, and decontaminated if necessary, at a regional inspection station in Annandale before launching at four accesses on East and West Sylvia, John and Pleasant lakes. Inspectors would place a zip-tie style seal on the boat and trailer to show it had been inspected.
The inspection station would be staffed seven days a week from about a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset.
About 5 percent of Minnesota's more than 11,000 lakes are infested with invasive species, which can crowd out native vegetation and interfere with recreation.
Starry stonewort, a grasslike algae that can form mats and clog boat motors, has now been confirmed in 11 Minnesota lakes, including Sylvia. The latest discoveries were Lake Minnewaska in Pope County and Grand Lake in Stearns County.
Many counties already have inspection programs to check boats at public accesses on high-traffic lakes. But not all accesses are covered all the time. In Wright County, only 28 of the 57 public lake accesses have inspectors.
Chris Hector, president of the Greater Lake Sylvia Association, said Wright County and the DNR have been working to keep invasive species out of area lakes, but the current system of inspections isn't cost effective. A centralized inspection facility would make it possible to cover more lakes with the same amount of staff, he said.
"As we struggle to protect our lake but also our surrounding lakes in Wright County, it's pretty clear that we need that additional leverage," Hector said.
The county board has signed off on the plan, but still needs approval from the state Department of Natural Resources.
State law has allowed counties to develop a regional watercraft inspection program since 2012, said Heidi Wolf, the DNR's invasive species unit supervisor. But Wright County is the first to submit a plan to the DNR. Wolf said her agency has received a lot of feedback on the plan already.
"There's everything from people who think this is just a bad precedent to set to people who are supportive of the plan as a way to be more efficient in watercraft inspections or try something new," she said. "So it runs the gamut."
The proposal has drawn some criticism, including from a Facebook group called "Common Sense MN Natural Resources Outdoors-Sporting Rules & Laws."
The group's founder, Carroll Aasen of Chaska, said the plan could limit access to lakes for anglers who like to go out fishing early in the morning before the inspection station opens.
Aasen also said the Wright County program isn't likely to be effective because it doesn't include any inspections for outgoing boats.
"They haven't proven that their method is going to stop or prevent something," he said. "To me, I'm more concerned about the starry stonewort spreading to another lake."
Hector said the plan originally included inspections for outgoing boats, but it was removed due to concerns about whether it could be enforced.
Hector said the plan wouldn't keep boaters from going out early in the morning. Once a boat has been inspected, it's good to go, whether it's the next day or the next spring.
"It clearly is not an attempt to restrict access to the lakes,' he said.
Hector said the plan tries to make the inspections as easy as possible. But it does require boaters to take an active role in getting their equipment inspected.
"The reality is we can't pretend that we can get this without requiring some effort on behalf of everybody that uses the lakes," he said.
An open house on the plan is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Annandale Municipal Park Pavilion, 300 Oak Ave. N. Comments can be submitted at email@example.com. The full plan is available online here.