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Wright County adds more lakes to boat inspection pilot program

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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 on June 29, 2018.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2018

Wright County is expanding a closely watched pilot program aimed at stopping the spread of aquatic invasive species. It requires boaters to stop at a regional inspection station before entering certain lakes.

On Tuesday, the county board voted 3 to 2 to add six more lakes to the program after about a dozen people, mostly lake residents, spoke in favor of it. The board also received more than 300 emails and letters about the proposed changes.

In 2017, Wright County became the first Minnesota county to require boats and trailers to be inspected and tagged at a regional checkpoint in Annandale before being allowed on certain lakes. 

Many counties and lake associations have inspectors who check boats at public landings, but the inspection hours may be limited. Other Minnesota counties have been watching the Wright County program as a possible model.

The original pilot included three Wright County lakes: Sylvia, Pleasant and John. It will be expanded to include Cedar, Maple, Sugar, Granite, Bass and Moose lakes. 

Most boaters entering those lakes will be required to have their vessels checked and tagged in Annandale first, or risk a citation. All nine lakes are within 15 miles of the inspection station.

Officials hope that adding more lakes to the program will make it more efficient because inspectors at the regional station will have less downtime waiting for boats.

The board did create an exemption for boat owners or their family members who take a class on how to inspect their own boats. They can receive a special decal and skip the drive to the regional checkpoint.

The program's expansion was cheered by lake association members worried about the potential impact of harmful aquatic invaders from spreading to more lakes. 

Of particular concern is starry stonewort, an invasive algae that has infested Lake Koronis near Paynesville in Stearns County. The aquatic plant forms thick mats that make swimming and boating difficult in parts of the lake, and the lake association has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to beat it back. The aquatic invader was also detected in Wright County's Pleasant Lake last year.

"You did the right thing and gave the rest of the state — people that care about the lakes — hope," said Kevin Farnum, who manages the aquatic invasive species efforts for the Koronis Lake Association. "I encourage you to allow its full potential with the addition of more lakes."

Blaine Barkley, chair of the aquatic invasives committee for the Greater Lake Sylvia Association, handed out maps showing the spread of aquatic invasive species in Wright County in the past few decades, including Eurasian watermilfoil, zebra mussels and a recent invader, flowering rush.

"This is not just a problem for Annandale. This is a problem for the whole county," Barkley said. 

Peter Pesheck lives on Granite Lake, one of the lakes that will be added to the inspection program. He said the program isn't perfect, but it's a needed start.

"The central question is, can we find a way to be effective against AIS, to keep users reasonably happy, and can we afford it?" Pesheck said. "What's it worth to us in money, time and hassle — to the towns, to us and the county — to have clean lakes versus nasty lakes?"

But many anglers and boaters have opposed the mandatory regional inspections, saying they are inconvenient and an attempt by lakeshore owners to keep non-residents off public lakes. 

Weston Bovitz wrote to the county board that his family frequently uses a public access point on Granite Lake just 3 minutes from his in-laws' home. He said a trip to the inspection station will increase that time to 21 minutes, even though he said he already properly checks and drains his boat.

"Please keep inspections at the boat launches themselves to preserve the public nature of our lakes and stop wasting money on a program that is ineffective and only succeeds in pushing boaters elsewhere," Bovitz wrote.

The program also has drawn criticism for only requiring inspection of boats when they enter the lakes, and not when they leave.

"When you have a hospital unit that has a quarantined area, you don't wash your hands before you go in. You wash them before you go out," said Sugar Lake resident Scott Radke.

Joe Shneider, president of the Minnesota Coalition of Lakes Associations, said the addition of the self-inspection program concerns him, because it requires "personal responsibility."

"That's been the DNR's motto on AIS: If you get them smart, if you get them charged with personal responsibility, you will not have a problem," Shneider said. "Well, we know what's happened with that."

The Wright County board also added an exemption for lake service providers, including businesses that install or remove docks and boats, who store equipment out of the water for more than 21 days.

The program still requires approval by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources before it goes into effect. If that approval doesn't happen by April 15, the ordinance is repealed.