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'We don't close our lakes': In battle against aquatic invaders, it's protection vs. access

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Gerry Bahe lowers the motor on his pontoon boat for inspection.
Gerry Bahe of Annandale lowers the motor on his pontoon boat for inspection, miles from the shoreline.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

On a hot, sunny Friday afternoon in July, Gerry Bahe is heading to Lake Sylvia for an evening boat ride. It's the kind of day when every Minnesotan with a boat is itching to get out on the water. 

But before he can catch that cool breeze off the lake, Bahe pulls his boat trailer into a dusty parking lot in Annandale, miles from the shoreline.

Map: Wright County
Locator map of Wright County, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News graphic

  Inspector Bradley Hansen checks over Bahe's boat and trailer for plant fragments, mud or zebra mussels clinging to them. He asks Bahe to lower the motor so any water trapped inside will drain out. 

  Inspections happen every day at boat landings across Minnesota. But this one is different: It's miles away from any lakeshore — and it's not optional.

In a pilot program that began last fall, Wright County has become the first in Minnesota to require mandatory inspections at a central location before boats can enter four of its lakes: East and West Lake Sylvia, Pleasant Lake and Lake John. It's an example of how Minnesota counties, on the front lines in the state's war against aquatic invasive species, are trying innovative approaches to stop the spread of invaders from lake to lake.

Here's how it works: Before they're allowed to get on one of those four lakes, boaters must drive to this regional inspection station in an Annandale business park, where their boat and trailer are inspected. If they're clean, they get a special seal on their boat and trailer. If they're not clean, they get decontaminated first, and then get the seal.

From there, boaters are free to head to the lake. Once they get to the landing, they have to leave the seal in a drop box and put a receipt on the dashboard of the car or truck they park at the landing. If they don't, they could face a fine of up to $1,000.

The whole process to inspect Bahe's boat takes less than five minutes, plus some extra drive time. Bahe doesn't mind.  

"There's definitely controversy about it, plusses and minuses, but I think it's a good thing," he said. "I think they've got to start someplace to start keeping our lakes clean."

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Pitting property owners against boaters

In Minnesota, watercraft inspections at boat ramps have been used for more than two decades as a way to prevent the spread of invasive species from lake to lake. But it's nearly impossible for inspectors to be at every public access point at every lake in the state. 

The Wright County program, which started last October and resumed this spring, has been getting a lot of attention as a possible model for other Minnesota counties. 

Hannah Purcell checks in Annandale boater Gerry Bahe
Hannah Purcell checks in Annandale boater Gerry Bahe as Bradley Hansen gets started inspecting his boat for any invasive species.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

But it's also gotten a fair share of criticism — mainly from people who don't live on the lakes but visit them to boat or fish. Some say it's an attempt by lake property owners to keep others off their lakes.

At a June 8 meeting in Annandale, several anglers spoke out against the program. They said it's inconvenient because they have to drive a longer distance before they can go to the lake. They say it restricts their access to public waters.

"We're feeling like our right to access the waterway is being infringed [upon], because the inspection site is miles away from any boat access," said angler Paul Miller of St. Michael, who started a social media group opposed to the program. 

"A half-hour doesn't seem like a lot," Miller said. "But it's prohibitive enough to some people that they're not going to want to make that extra trip, and they're just going to go to another lake."

Annandale area watercraft inspections
Boat inspections for four lakes - East and West Sylvia Lake, Lake John and Pleasant Lake - are funneled to one checkpoint in Annandale.
William Lager | MPR News

That could hurt local businesses that depend on traffic from boaters and anglers, he said. 

Anglers also complain that the program limits their ability to fish at night or in the early morning, when the inspection station is closed — unless they plan ahead and get their boat inspected the day before. The station operates seven days a week from a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset.

The pushback doesn't surprise Alicia O'Hare, a water resource specialist with the Wright County Soil and Water Conservation District.

  "It is really hard when, all of the sudden, you have to spend extra time before you can go on the lake. We understand that's frustrating," O'Hare said. "But we're trying to find out if the cost-benefit of having this program is really worth it."

Centralizing the process to increase its reach

The Wright County debate is a microcosm of a larger struggle the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources faces in its fight against aquatic invasives: The agency must weigh its responsibility to protect Minnesota's waters against the public's right to access those waters. 

Sometimes, those two things conflict.

In Minnesota, the DNR is ultimately responsible for maintaining the health of the state's waterways. But the invasive species challenge is too massive for one agency. Counties, lake associations, watershed districts and other organizations also receive funding to combat aquatic invaders, and they are looking for ways to stretch those dollars.

Watercraft inspections are a key element of that effort. But supporters of the Wright County pilot program say there's no way the state or counties can afford to pay for round-the-clock inspectors at every boat landing. 

Bradley Hansen (right) and Hannah Purcell inspect a boat.
Inspectors Bradley Hansen (right) and Hannah Purcell start the process of inspecting a boat at the Wright County check point in Annandale.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Most Wright County lakes have inspection coverage just 4 percent of the time, said Chris Hector, board member of the Greater Lake Sylvia Association, which is helping fund the pilot program.

"If you thought about locking the door on your bank for 4 percent of the time, it gives you an idea of the scale the order of magnitude we're trying to deal with," he said.

Funneling boaters to a regional checkpoint allows inspectors to be available for longer hours — and reduces downtime, when there aren't any boats to inspect, Hector said.

The Wright County inspection program has generated support from lake advocates like Russ Fortner, who has lived on Lake Sylvia full-time for 14 years.

"It's not perfect, by any means," said Fortner, president of the lake association. "Is it a bad start or a good start? I don't know. But it's something, and we can only fine tune it as we go."

At the June meeting in Annandale, Fortner spoke about his worries over the spread of starry stonewort, an invasive algae that he calls a "lake-killer." It forms thick, grass-like mats that interfere with boating and swimming.

"If we don't do something about it, the last 50 years or more of lake living is out the window, because kids can't go on the dock, nobody can play in the water, the fishing ..." Fortner said. "Everything will be gone."  

Minnesota lakes: 'Free to everybody all the time'

Some lake advocates have questioned why Minnesota doesn't copy the efforts of some western U.S. states, where boats are inspected as soon as they cross the state lines, and before they can go onto any lake.

That wouldn't work in Minnesota, said Heidi Wolf, supervisor of the DNR's invasive species unit: Western states have few lakes, and most are privately owned.

Bradley Hansen and Hannah Purcell inspect a boat.
Inspectors Bradley Hansen (right) and Hannah Purcell start the process of inspecting a boat at the Wright County checkpoint in Annandale.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Compare that to Minnesota, with more than 11,000 lakes — all of which are considered public water.

"In Minnesota, of course, our lakes are public, they're publicly owned. Nobody owns a private water body," Wolf said. "So it changes people's expectation about use, we don't close our lakes. They are free to everybody all the time."

Besides, Wolf said, boats using public accesses aren't the only way aquatic invaders are spreading. In at least two cases, Minnesota lakes were infested by moving docks and boat lifts with zebra mussels attached, Wolf said.

"Closing an access would just be closing one pathway," she said. "We don't believe that is an effective way to fight the spread of aquatic invasive species when there are so many other pathways."

Hector doesn't think Wright County's inspection experiment is limiting access to its lakes. He said while it might seem like there are two camps — lake owners and boaters — divided over the program, the reality is that lakeshore owners are boaters, too. And they're also required to have their boats inspected if they take them over public roads to another lake or to store them for the winter.

"We moved to the lake because we love water, and our kids love water," Hector said. "We're sportsmen. We buy fishing licenses and boats and docks and lifts. And we spend the majority of time on one lake, but we're part of the boating community."

Wright County's pilot program will continue at least through October. Officials plan to analyze data they're collecting to see if the model could work in other places.

But even the program's supporters acknowledge it has limitations. Boaters aren't required to have their boats inspected when they leave the four lakes in the pilot. Exit inspections were proposed initially, but county officials decided they didn't have the legal authority to enforce them.

And just this month, the DNR confirmed that Pleasant Lake — one of the four lakes in the inspection program — has become the 13th in Minnesota with starry stonewort, proving just how difficult stopping the spread of aquatic invaders can be.