A new electronic gate -- installed at a cost of $30,000 -- is ready to drop its arm across the public boat ramp on Christmas Lake in Shorewood, if the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources approves its use in an experiment aimed at stopping the spread of zebra mussels.

"The next boating season is just seven months away. So there is no let up on the urgency," said Joe Shneider, president of the Christmas Lake homeowners association.

Residents around Christmas Lake, as well as Lotus Lake and Lake Minnewashta in Chanhassen, want to work with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District to require all boats launching at the lakes to first pass inspections for aquatic invasive species. But the plan would require boaters to travel to a centralized inspection point before entering the lakes, and the DNR says there's no legal way to compel them.

As a first-of-its-kind grass-roots attempt to let boats launch into a lake only after an inspection -- and to close ramps outside of inspection hours -- the proposal is being watched by lake associations around the state and by anglers, some of whom oppose more ramp controls.

All three lakes are within a short drive of Lake Minnetonka, where zebra mussels were discovered in 2010, and lake residents are desperate to protect the neighboring lakes from the spread of the fast-multiplying creatures, which mass on boats and docks and foul beaches.

The DNR has reacted cautiously to the watershed district's request to combine all the inspections at Lake Minnewashta Regional Park and to close the ramps outside of inspection times.

Jim Japs, assistant director of the DNR's water management section, said this week that the DNR is reviewing the proposal but he finds that no legal authority exists for the kind of combined inspection station the lake residents and watershed district propose as a way to save on inspection costs.

The authority to require someone wanting to put their boat in a lake to go to another location for an inspection "doesn't exist right now," Japs said. Further, he said, the DNR does not have the power to grant that authority for a pilot project.

The lake groups and watershed district also are waiting for permission from Carver County to set up the joint inspection station at Lake Minnewashta Regional Park. The county's park commission is scheduled to discuss the matter Nov. 9.

Steve Jenks, a fisherman and lake advocate who lives on Lotus Lake, said the pace of DNR action on the pilot project has been frustratingly slow.

"I thought we were Minnesotans and we cared about the lakes. I am not seeing it," Jenks said.

The DNR has "had our plan for the better part of two months, and we haven't gotten any official feedback that says this works, this doesn't work.''

As for Japs' finding that there is no authority for joint inspections, Jenks said: "I understand [his] position, but he is not the commissioner."

Japs has suggested that the watershed district research its powers to see if the law would allow it to do the joint inspections.

"Our role," Japs said, "is providing the authorized inspectors. We have indicated our willingness to do that."

The gate installed on Christmas Lake with funding from Shorewood, the watershed district and homeowners would be raised and lowered with punch codes that boaters would get at the inspection station.

A gate at a boat ramp runs counter to Minnesota's longstanding open-lakes policy. The lake associations say the policy was set long before the invasion of aquatic invasive species and must be updated to reflect the need to protect lakes with more inspections.

The DNR has stepped up efforts to stop the spread of unwanted species by adding inspectors, expanding inspection hours and giving certain inspectors the power to bar boats from the water.

The agency has opposed any attempt to limit public access to lakes.

Eric Evenson, executive director of the watershed district, has said more control at boat ramps is necessary to stop boats from spreading zebra mussels and other invasive species.

The watershed district believes it could establish its authority to require boat inspections at a central site within its jurisdiction, but taking on aquatic invasive species would be an expensive new direction for the watershed district, which now focuses on preventing flooding and improving water quality, Evenson said. The watershed board is weighing the issue.

Meanwhile, until the pilot project is approved, the Christmas Lake gate will be used to open and close the boat ramp in accordance with existing DNR-approved hours, Evenson said.

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287