Aggressive effort planned at Lake Minnewashta is first time DNR put local agency in charge.
Beginning May 15, all boats entering Lake Minnewashta in Carver County will be inspected for zebra mussels in the most ambitious effort yet in the state to prevent the invasive pests from infesting a lake.
It marks the first time that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has authorized a local government to take over such a program, with authority to require inspections and deny boat launching if necessary.
County commissioners voted 3-2 last week to pay half of the $31,000 cost for daily inspections. The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District will pay the rest.
The partnership could become a model for other lakes in the southwest metro county, as well as those in other counties. It comes at a time when some lakeshore owners and others are desperately trying to devise local efforts to stop zebra mussels, which have infested about two dozen lakes in the state, including heavily trafficked Lake Minnetonka in 2010.
"Once they're in a lake, you don't get rid of them and they're there forever," said Dick Osgood, executive director of the nonprofit Lake Minnetonka Association.
The DNR will be cracking down on zebra mussels by dramatically increasing its own inspections at boat landings this summer and initiating them on roads.
But Steve Gunther, president of the Lake Minnewashta Preservation Association, said the DNR cannot handle the exploding problem by itself and needs to partner with local governments to keep the mussels from spreading.
"In the past, the DNR would randomly show up at a lake access and randomly educate boaters or inspect boats," he said. "They never had enough resources to do a thorough job at any given lake."
Gunther said he is "proud and delighted" that Carver County commissioners approved the plan, which everyone considers to be a pilot program.
Under the arrangement, the DNR will train inspectors at no charge, and Carver County Parks will hire them to work at the lake's two public access points in Lake Minnewashta Regional Park.
Inspectors will check all boats, canoes, personal watercraft and other vessels that users want to launch at the lake. The checks will occur during park hours, from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., from May 15 to Sept. 19.
No one will be exempt, Gunther said, including those who live on the lake and move their boats to and from it.
Luke Skinner, DNR invasive species program supervisor, said he was "very supportive" of local governments getting involved with inspections.
In addition to its own inspections, the agency has trained volunteer inspectors for more than a decade, Skinner said, but the volunteers had no authority and functioned mainly to educate boaters.
That will be different for the first time at Lake Minnewashta.
"They will have authority to require inspection, and to deny launch if boaters do not pass inspection or if they refuse inspection," Skinner said.
The inspectors will have "level 1" status, Skinner said, which does not include authority to decontaminate watercraft or to issue citations.
Laws require all boaters leaving a lake to remove zebra mussels and weeds from their boats and trailers, and to drain bilge water, empty bait buckets and dump other onboard water that may contain microscopic mussel larvae or invasive plants.
Skinner said the DNR is willing to develop similar partnerships with other communities, but only with local units of government such as counties, cities and watershed districts -- not lakeshore groups or others.
Buying some time
Carver County Board Chairman Randy Maluchnik said the county will study what happens at Minnewashta to decide whether to continue or expand the program beyond 2012. Although some have argued that it's impossible to stop zebra mussels and a waste of taxpayer money to try, Maluchnik disagrees.
"It's like riding an airplane and going through security," he said. "We don't like it, but it's something we've got to do to protect the safety of everybody."
Eric Evenson, administrator of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, said that Minnewashta's pilot project is a "stopgap measure" while the DNR, his district, and perhaps others work on longer-term strategies.
Some lakes with multiple access points will be difficult to protect, he said, and costs of inspections could be huge, even if shared between state and local governments. But not spending money could also be expensive, Evenson said, since zebra mussels can hurt businesses, tourism and property values, to say nothing of the environmental harm to fisheries and quality of life.
"If your kids can't walk on the beach without cutting up their feet [on sharp mussel shells], that's something people don't want to see happen," he said.
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388