An aquatic invasive species pilot project that centralized boat inspections in Annandale for a trio of nearby lakes is on the verge of collapse after the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) denied its proposed expansion.

The decision earlier this month by DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen sharpened criticism from lakeshore property owners in Wright County that the DNR is unsupportive of grassroots efforts to stop the spread of zebra mussels, starry stonewort, Eurasian milfoil and other harmful invaders.

But the DNR said the proposed expansion and two other proposed changes to the project would confound efforts to evaluate whether it’s an idea worth duplicating. Under previous DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, there was concern within the agency that regional inspection stations like the one in Annandale might unduly hinder public access to state waters.

“We believe they [DNR officials] are looking to kill the program,” said Chris Hector, a property owner on Lake Sylvia who is president of the nonprofit Wright County Regional Inspection Coalition. “Too many boats go uninspected without this program.”

The coalition and its partners proposed adding six lakes to the pilot project this year. Last year, all boat trailers and water equipment destined for Lake Sylvia, Lake John and Pleasant Lake needed to pass inspection at the Annandale site and display proof of inspection for access to those lakes.

But leaders of the pilot project reported that boat traffic for the three lakes was not enough to keep the inspection station busy. They proposed adding Moose, Sugar, Cedar, Bass, Granite and Maple lakes to the coverage area. The idea was supported by a new mandatory inspection ordinance passed by the Wright County Board.

Even though the pilot project is not funded by the DNR, it requires the agency’s approval if changes are made from year to year. It began in late 2017. In an April 5 letter to the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District — a key partner in the pilot project — Strommen called for a revised plan for 2019.

“We suggest you eliminate the proposed expansion,” Strommen wrote.

She said in her letter that the state could not justify expansion of a pilot project that was judged by the DNR in 2018 to have performance and data “issues.”

Organizers of the pilot project also proposed a pair of exemptions for regional inspection in 2019. One exemption would have allowed participants in boater education to conduct their own boat inspections.

Heidi Wolf, the DNR’s aquatic invasive species program director, said changing the rules would spoil year-to-year feasibility comparisons of the pilot project. One of the objectives of the pilot is to test whether it’s more effective and less costly than sporadically inspecting boats at each lake’s public access.

“The point was to see what would work,” she said. “Changing it would cause a data problem.”

Proponents of the pilot project say it needs to be expanded because it would be impractical to have a regional inspection station for just three lakes. In 2018, the Annandale site ran on a budget of $228,200, including the use of decontamination equipment.

Hector said partners in the Wright County pilot project intend to keep meeting with DNR to work something out. “We’re trying to work a deal,” he said.

But meanwhile, state Sen. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township, intervened this month to revive the pilot project. He introduced an amendment that would expand the pilot project the way it was planned by his constituents in Wright County.

Anderson said his amendment is supported by the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District, county commissioners, the county sheriff and lakeshore property owners. Fishing groups, however, are opposed. He said the expansion for the third year of the pilot project was foreseen in the original plan from 2017.

Anderson acknowledged that the DNR found shortcomings in the operations of the regional inspection station last year, but mistakes happen in all pilot projects, he said. He stepped in because the pilot project deserves to run its three-year course, at least. If the state’s boat inspection system doesn’t change, he said, invasive species will keep spreading.

“The DNR keeps saying we don’t have enough inspectors,” Anderson said.

There is no companion for Anderson’s amendment in the House omnibus bill. He said his legislation has gotten the attention of the DNR — enough to spur more talks.

“We have high hopes that legislatively this will be a wake-up call,” Hector said.

He said the pilot project was destined to prove that regional inspection sites are 10 times more cost-effective to operate than individual lakeside stations. Last year, the centralized location in Annandale was open seven days a week from pre-dawn until after dusk.