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Controversial Wright County boat inspection program halted

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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.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News file

A closely watched Wright County pilot program aimed at preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species is ending.

In 2017, Wright County became the first Minnesota county to require boats and trailers to be inspected at a regional checkpoint before they were allowed on certain lakes. County officials hoped to provide better inspection coverage and reduce the risk that boaters might transport invasive species to a new lake. 

This year, county officials had planned to expand the program to include six more lakes. They also added an exemption for people who took a class on how to inspect their own boats.

But the ordinance governing the pilot project was automatically repealed when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources didn't approve it by an April 15 deadline. Instead, Wright County officials say they will go back to conducting random inspections at boat ramps this summer — the practice used in most Minnesota counties.

In a letter to the county, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said the agency can't justify expanding the program because of issues with inspector performance and data collection. She also said changing the program by adding the self-inspection process would make it difficult to evaluate its success.

Heidi Wolf, who supervises the DNR's invasive species unit, said the department had received some complaints from boaters about the quality of inspections at the regional station. She said a DNR staff person went through the inspection process without identifying themselves as such and reported that the inspection would not have met DNR standards.

The program also was missing information comparing the costs of conducting inspections at the public boat ramps and the regional station, Wolf said.

"The idea was to try and be more efficient or effective," she said. "Was that happening or not happening? There was just a lack of that data."

Wolf said the DNR also pointed out gaps in the inspection and tagging process that meant a few people were getting a receipt proving their boat had been inspected at the station once, then using it multiple times without going through another inspection.

The county planned to increase the number of "spot checkers" who would be checking for receipts at public boat landings, but Wolf said the department wasn't convinced that would resolve the issue.

The pilot program was strongly supported by local lake association members worried about the possibility of destructive pests like zebra mussels or starry stonewort infecting their lake. But it was unpopular with some boaters and anglers, who disliked the inconvenience of having to drive to a central inspection point before going to a lake and perceived it an effort to restrict access to public lakes.

Wolf said Wright County could submit another plan at any time to do regional inspections for the original three lakes: Sylvia, Pleasant and John. The DNR would need to approve the plan.

Chris Hector is president of the nonprofit Wright County Regional Inspection Coalition, an organization formed to oversee the program. Hector said he's still negotiating with the DNR and hopes to reach agreement on a plan to allow the program to expand to nine lakes: the original three, plus Cedar, Granite, Maple, Bass, Sugar and Moose. 

The program still has funding from a grant from the Initiation Foundation for more than $600,000 that continues until the end of June and could be extended, Hector said. But the coalition can't continue with its regional inspection work without DNR approval.

Hector, who is a member of the Greater Lake Sylvia Association board, which helped fund the shuttered pilot program, said the setback has been frustrating.

"When we look at what we accomplished with our effort, in many ways, we're really excited to be where we are now," he said. "But I was hoping to be starting regional inspections on nine lakes today, and I'm not there. So, I'm kind of disappointed by that."

Some of the setbacks come from the fact that the program is the first of its kind in Minnesota, and it's been a "learning experience" for the county and the DNR, Hector said. He said the program's supporters still hope to provide a template to other counties where regional inspections might make sense.

In the meantime, plans are underway to start random inspections at the boat ramps sometime in June, Hector said.