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Audience chairs at Minnehaha Creek Watershed District board meetings are usually empty and the agendas pretty routine. That changed last week, when about 150 people packed a meeting in Excelsior at which the board found itself in the middle of a passionate standoff between lake homeowners and anglers.
The homeowners voiced support for ratcheting up control of local lakes to stop the spread of invasive species like zebra mussels, while boaters and anglers fiercely defended preserving easy access to lakes.
The little-known district was propelled into the spotlight as part of a shift in which the call for action against invasive species is moving from the state to local governments.
While it's not one of the state's largest watershed districts, it's one of the most iconic, including Minnehaha Falls and Lake Minnetonka. The last 45 years, it has been charged with managing eight creeks, 129 lakes and thousands of wetlands throughout Minneapolis and the western suburbs. That overlaps Hennepin and Carver counties, 27 cities, two townships, Three Rivers Park District and Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board territory.
"Watershed districts are uniquely positioned," board manager Pam Blixt said. "We do cross all those boundaries and we have a broad authority in a narrow focused area."
Even after moving to a bigger room, the meeting was standing-room-only for residents, anglers and marina owners who turned out to debate potential changes to boat accesses.
"People are upset, and they want somebody to do something," said district administrator Eric Evenson. "This is probably the most significant ecological problem the state has faced."
What's at stake could be groundbreaking. Whatever the watershed does in the coming months could edge closer to changes that will alter the culture of boating, jet skiing and fishing across the west metro and perhaps statewide.
Last week's meeting was the result of a new group of lake associations presenting ideas for invasive-species prevention to the watershed. Among the ideas from the Coalition of Minnehaha Creek Waters are installing electronic gates at 30 accesses and ramping up inspections of every boat entering the watershed from Minneapolis' Chain of Lakes to Lake Minnetonka.
Those aggressive measures prompted a passionate debate over politics, property values, accusations of privatizing public lakes and keeping free one of Minnesota's most popular traditions. Boaters said they were concerned about a loss of access, new fees and a rushed plan they say targets them.
The seven board managers didn't vote on a plan at last week's meeting, but the heated discussion forced them to clarify their role. The debate provided valuable input, Evenson said, for the watershed's own plan to be released by the end of the year.
"There was such a great exchange of ideas and emotion in the room," he said. "It's the way government should be."
Most of the district's $12 million annual budget comes from local property taxes, funding things such as water-quality monitoring, studies, restoration and about 27 researchers, planners and other staff. Over the years, its role has evolved; it was started to control flooding and continues to change with the spread of invasive species. Next year, the district plans to spend half a million dollars on invasive-species prevention -- the largest in both scope and amount to date.
Said board chair Jim Calkins, "The vast majority of the residents, even though they pay taxes, don't know the watershed district exists. And that's too bad."
A daunting task
Evenson said he is concerned that local governments stepping up prevention measures could lead to piecemeal efforts across the state instead of having the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) head up efforts.
"Holy cow, if it does end up at the local level, there are so many bodies of water important to Minnesotans that will go without," Blixt said. "I don't think that's the way we should go as a state."
From Shorewood to Minneapolis, more local leaders are dedicating money to fighting the spread of zebra mussels and other invasive species. For the first time, the DNR has 15 joint-powers agreements with cities, counties and others to establish prevention programs, giving local leaders more power in inspections. The DNR also has trained more than 350 volunteers in boat inspections.
Jim Japs of the DNR's ecological and water resources division said more local efforts are needed. "It's a daunting task to try to prevent expansion of invasive species."
The coalition of lake associations' plan is "not here or there," he said, "we want to see what comes from the watershed district." The DNR would ultimately have to approve the watershed district's invasive species plan.
Unlike specific stakeholders, Japs said the state wants to prevent invasive species while collaborating with other government bodies and ensuring continued access for boaters. "Balancing access and preventing [invasive species] is the issue," he said. "But I believe you can do both."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib