Every boater launching a craft on Lake Minnetonka would pay a ramp fee to have boats inspected for ride-along plants and water life if the Lake Minnetonka Association gets its way.

The group representing lakeshore home and business owners warns in a new report that "several harmful aquatic invasive species are at our doorstep, and Lake Minnetonka is highly exposed to these invaders."

To protect the popular lake, it recommends spending $600,000 a year for a full-time lake manager and inspection program. It offers to provide a quarter of the money, with much of the rest to come from launch fees -- the first in the state at public ramps.

"We have one chance. Prevention is the only logical strategy," said Dick Osgood, association executive director. Osgood envisions fees of $5 to $10, or a larger sum for a season's pass.

There is no known way to rid waters of zebra mussels, spiny water flea, rusty crayfish, Asian carp and Brazilian elodea, all of which have made their way into Minnesota waters, the association says. If spread to Lake Minnetonka, they could hurt fishing, swimming and boating and undermine the economy of the lake community.

The association is already battling some stubborn invasive species: It spent $180,000 last summer for an expansive chemical treatment of Eurasian water milfoil and curly-leaf pondweed in three Lake Minnetonka bays: Carman, Grays and Phelps.

An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 boats a year enter Lake Minnetonka at public launches, and three-fourths of them are not checked for harmful plants and organisms they might bring from other lakes, Osgood said.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources inspections touch only about a quarter of the boats launched, and focus more on education than physical inspections, Osgood said.

"While many individuals, organizations and agencies care about Lake Minnetonka, we have lacked coordinated leadership," said lake association president Amanda Walsh.

New powers, tax authority

The association wants the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District to lead the new protection program with new powers and expanded taxing authority approved by the state Legislature. Created in 1967, the district rules on dock requests, works to control exotic species and oversees lake management issues. Its board of directors is made up of appointees from the 14 cities surrounding the lake.

Greg Nybeck, executive director of the conservation district, defended the district's efforts to control invasive species. "We have spent a lot of time and energy doing prevention efforts over the years. Can more be done? Yes. We are willing to do more. But we have budget constraints."

Some help might come from the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, said its director, Eric Evanson. "The reason the watershed district in the past has not gotten involved is because it's been viewed as more of a lake use issue, as opposed to a water quality issue. Now it makes more sense for the watershed district to start looking at this more seriously."

Evanson said inspections help but are not the entire answer. He sees promise in a program that would identify boats that have been in infested waters with a sticker that could not be removed until the boat was thoroughly cleaned.

The DNR does spot inspections of boats on Lake Minnetonka along with 10,000 other lakes in the state, said Luke Skinner, supervisor of the DNR's invasive species program. Although inspectors spend most of their time at infested waters, "We do have staff that spend time on Lake Minnetonka. It probably gets more inspection hours than any other lake in the state," Skinner said.

"Our inspectors are there mainly to educate and to get them to clean their boats," Skinner added. About 1.5 percent of the boats inspected are carrying vegetation and owners must clean them on site, he said. Skinner agreed more inspection and enforcement would help.

'Down a slippery slope'

Last year, DNR officials wrote 36 tickets statewide for boats carrying vegetation. Fines range from $50 to $200, Skinner said.

Gregg Melstrom of Minnetonka, who has been fishing on Lake Minnetonka for 16 years and spends 100 days a year on the lake as a fishing guide, said ramp fees would be unpopular. "We are walking down a slippery slope when you start charging people to put their boat in a public lake," he said.

A one-time fee for an inspection and invasive species briefing might work. But for frequent users of the lake who don't take their boats anywhere else, repeated inspections would become a nuisance, he said.

He suggested requiring anyone who wants to boat on Lake Minnetonka to have certification proving that they had passed a test on how invasive species are spread. DNR officials could check for certification on the laptops they carry.

"All they need is your name and they could pull it up and say, 'Yep, I see you got your certification. You are good to go.'''

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711