Boat-cleaning stations aim to contain aquatic invader

Steve McComas pulls up a mat of starry stonewort near a boat access.
Aquatic scientist Steve McComas pulls up a mat of starry stonewort near a boat access on Lake Koronis in this file photo. Koronis was the first Minnesota lake discovered to have starry stonewort.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2018

Boaters on some Minnesota lakes soon will have a new tool to help fight against aquatic invasive species.

Self-serve boat cleaning stations are being installed at a handful of public accesses on northern Minnesota lakes infested with starry stonewort, an invasive algae.

In 2021, the Minnesota Legislature approved $1 million from the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund for the stations, which are manufactured by the company CD3.

Starry stonewort is a fast-spreading invasive algae that can form dense mats on a lake's surface and choke out native species. It was first discovered in Minnesota in 2015 in Lake Koronis near Paynesville, and has now been confirmed in 19 water bodies in the state.

"It moves very quickly within a 50-mile radius of that water body,” said Jeff Forester, executive director of the nonprofit Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates. “So it’s local movement to adjacent lakes that's really the concern."

Forester said a recent Cornell University study found that most boaters knew the necessary steps to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species — cleaning, draining and drying boats, trailers and equipment — but didn't always follow them.

“They believed it was important,” he said. “They knew what to do, but they weren't doing it, and the reason why was it was hard. They didn't have the tools they needed when they needed them in order to be able to do the job.”

The stations will provide those tools — including a wet-dry vacuum, a high-pressure air hose, scrubbing brushes, grabbing tools and lights to help boaters see at night.

“We think that this might be a way to prevent starry stonewort from ending up in hundreds of lakes in the state,” Forester said.

The stations will be installed this week at accesses on Cass and Winnibigoshish lakes on the Leech Lake Reservation. The reservation is about the size of Rhode Island, and one-third is covered with water, said Kate Hagsten, plant resources director for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. 

The lakes are popular for recreation, which puts them at risk for invasive species, Hagsten said.

"This is a useful tool to help manage those landings where we can't always have staff out there, but to provide tools for boaters so that they can make good decisions and help to prevent the spread,” she said.

The stations won’t replace watercraft inspectors stationed at public accesses, who check over boats and talk to operators about preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species, Hagsten said.

More stations are planned for later this year at lakes in Itasca, Beltrami, Meeker, Pope, Stearns and Wright counties. The goal is to install them at every public access on every lake with starry stonewort, Forester said.

Since state lawmakers approved the funding, the Department of Natural Resources confirmed starry stonewort in three more Minnesota water bodies, including Leech Lake. Forester said they will be asking the Legislature for more funding this year.