Saying zebra mussels, Asian carp, Eurasian water milfoil and other invasive species threaten Minnesota's lakes, rivers, billion-dollar tourism industry and a way of life, Gov. Mark Dayton announced a legislative proposal Wednesday to slow their spread.
Catching boaters who transport invasive species to or from infested lakes is part of the plan, which would be paid for by raising the boat registration surcharge and nonresident fishing fees. But the proposal clashes with the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has vowed no tax increases or fee hikes.
Still, Dayton and DFL legislators said it's imperative that both parties agree to slow the spread of invasives before it's too late.
"What we're trying to protect is truly priceless,'' Dayton said. "The clock is ticking. This is not a Republican, DFL or Independence Party problem, it's a Minnesota problem. And once it's too late, it's too late.''
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the key Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee that will hear the proposal, hasn't ruled out the idea. He planned to meet with Republican caucus members Wednesday night to discuss it. "We'll give it consideration,'' he said.
Dayton's plan incorporates recommendations from a 19-member citizens advisory group representing counties, lake associations, angler groups, conservation organizations, businesses and others. The group supports raising boat registration fees and urged increased enforcement, inspections and penalties for violators.
Boaters now pay a $5 surcharge with their three-year boat registration fee -- or $1.66 a year -- which is used to fight invasive species. That fee hasn't changed since 1993. Under the governor's proposal, the surcharge would rise to $10 for canoes, $20 for boats 17 feet long or less and $25 for those over 17 feet. And a $2 surcharge on nonresident fishing licenses would rise to $5.
That would raise about $4 million annually, doubling the amount the state now spends. The DNR would use the money to add almost 13,000 hours of enforcement -- twice its current effort. Existing conservation officers would be paid overtime to make more boater checks at lake accesses. Money also would go for increased inspections by more highly trained DNR workers instead of summer college interns, and for possible "decontamination stations'' where invasive species could be washed from boats. The plan also would control and remove aquatic plants from some waters, increase public awareness and train dock and boat lift installers on how to prevent the spread of invasives.
The measure also would give conservation officers and trained inspectors more authority to inspect boats. Boaters who refuse inspection wouldn't be allowed to launch their craft, and could face one-year registration suspensions. The bill also doubles the civil citations for those caught transporting invasive species. The fine for transporting plants such as Eurasian water milfoil would be $100, and $500 for transporting zebra mussels -- both double current fines.
At a news conference in St. Paul with Dayton, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr called the invasives a "silent plague'' that can drastically change the ecology of the state's lakes and rivers. "Once they get into a body of water, it's impossible to get them out,'' he said. "This is a long-term problem, and we need long-term, stable funding.''
At present, 19 lakes and four Minnesota rivers are infected with zebra mussels, and 240 lakes are infected with Eurasian water milfoil. Asian carp have been found in the Mississippi River, but officials said there is no reproducing population yet.
Doug Smith • 612-673-7667
AT A GLANCE:
The governor's proposal calls for these three-year surcharges for boaters:
$10 for canoes.
$20 for boats 17 feet or less.
$25 for those over 17 feet.
$5 surcharge on nonresident fishing licenses.