Parks panel OKs zebra mussel plan

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2011 - 8:50 PM

If plan is enacted, all boats on Minnewashta will be checked.

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Zebra mussels attached themselves to a native clam on the bottom of Lake Mille Lacs.

Photo: , Minnesota DNR

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Carver County park commissioners have OK'd spending $30,000 to inspect all of the boats launching at Lake Minnewashta Regional Park next year, in a case that illustrates the increasing desperation of some lakeshore associations to make every effort locally to stop zebra mussels.

The 6-1 vote was a victory for a west metro lake's homeowner association, which has said that preventing further spread of the invasive fingernail-sized mussels is urgent, and that sporadic state inspections will not be enough to protect any lake, including Minnewashta.

The mussels have infested about two dozen lakes in the state, including nearby Lake Minnetonka in 2010.

"This is a catastrophe waiting to happen unless we take some hard and fast action," said Steve Gunther, president of the Lake Minnewashta Preservation Association.

Despite his urgency, the Carver County Board will have the final say on whether and how to fund the inspections. And the DNR says it is trying to resolve legal and ecological questions connected with revamping state policy on boat inspections.

Minnewashta, which is in Chanhassen, is just one area lake where homeowners are worried. Associations at Lotus Lake in Chanhassen, Christmas Lake in Shorewood, Fish Lake in Maple Grove and Medicine Lake in Plymouth are also pushing for ways to protect their lakes.

Other associations and anglers are watching to see if 100 percent mandatory inspections will be allowed, and whether anyone other than the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will be authorized to conduct them.

Reducing risks

Once introduced in a lake or stream, zebra mussel populations explode and cannot be stopped because they have no natural predators.

They attach themselves to hard surfaces such as docks, boats, motors, rocks and native mussels. As filter feeders, they change the ecology of a lake or river by consuming microscopic foods needed by insects and small fish, which can reduce the number of larger fish and birds. After they die the mussels also litter shorelines with millions of razor-sharp shells that spoil swimming beaches.

If the pilot project at Lake Minnewashta is approved, the county would hire trained inspectors to check all boats preparing to enter the lake at the regional park's boat launch May 15-Sept. 15, from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. The inspector on duty would be authorized to board boats and check live wells and other parts of the boat for transported water, and to deny a launch if the boat failed inspection.

Inspections are important in reducing risk because zebra mussels attach themselves to weeds, or get trapped in bait buckets and bilge water. Unless those boating in infested areas take care to empty water and remove weeds when they leave those waters, they may inadvertently transport mussels or their microscopic larvae to the next lake they visit, spreading the problem.

Hurdles ahead

Carver County Park staff opposed the pilot project because other lakes would start requesting money. Also, the county does not now have the authority to require boaters to have their boats inspected. The park commissioners also did not address where the money will come from.

Gunther said funds might come from a slight increase in user fees at the park, or from the county's general funds, but his group has not recommended any particular source. The county may balk at paying $30,000 to protect one lake from zebra mussels for one year, Gunther said, but that would likely be cheaper than what the county will lose in property tax revenues if zebra mussels invade that lake and its home values drop by 10 percent.

Consistency needed

The DNR supports local efforts to reduce the spread of the mussels and has helped several lake associations whose volunteers pass out literature and chat with boaters to educate them about the problem, said Steve Hirsch, DNR Director of Ecological and Water Resources.

But Hirsch said that mandatory inspections with the authority to turn boaters away or require their boats to be decontaminated is different matter entirely, and cannot be turned over to lake associations. He said the DNR is studying whether it can delegate inspection authority to cities, counties or watershed districts, and is working on a "package" of changes that will be announced next spring.

"If we're going to allow local units of government to do inspections, we need to have consistency so that boaters know what to expect when they're going to different areas," Hirsch said. The state's traditional open access to lakes needs to remain strong, he said, but zebra mussels are a huge challenge.

"We can't do this alone, obviously, because the problem is too big," he said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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