It was a bold pitch: Start a world-class research center unlike anything in the country to tackle ways to save one of Minnesota’s most precious resources — its thousands of lakes and rivers — from invading species.

Researchers sold legislators in 2012 on the idea of the state leading the way with innovative, high-risk research, funneling about $12 million into starting up and then running the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center until 2019, predicting it would be a “game-changer” in the struggle to protect waterways from things like zebra mussels and invasive carp.

Now, as the center enters its third year, it’s expanding with new hires and new projects slated to start this summer. But some critics say it’s not doing enough to stop the spread of aquatic invasive species.

“I’m concerned it’s safe research and won’t move the needle,” said Jeff Forester, who leads the Minnesota Lakes & Rivers Advocates and is on a state committee on aquatic invasive species. “It’s not what the center was designed to do; it doesn’t fulfill the promise … and I don’t think it gets us any closer to a solution.”

Susan Galatowitsch, the center’s director, said research will take time and that the center is focused on projects first proposed in 2012 as well as new projects this year.

“The alternative to this is giving up. … Innovation and research is our shot,” she said. “There are definitely people who want one magic bullet. And that rarely happens.”

From Lake Minnetonka to Mille Lacs, some of Minnesota’s most popular recreation and boating lakes are infested with zebra mussels. But most of the state’s nearly 12,000 lakes still aren’t listed as infested by the Department of Natural Resources.

As a result, Minnesota — which ranks No. 1 in the country for boat ownership per capita — has intensified efforts to try to slow the spread of the mussels and other aquatic invasive species that are here or on the way, increasing boat inspections in and out of lakes, ticketing boaters who transport invasive species and starting educational campaigns.

But as cities, counties and local groups strive to slow the spread, the center was also tasked with finding permanent solutions, especially against carp and zebra mussels.

“It will position Minnesota as one of the best-prepared states for aquatic nuisance species control and a world leader,” scientist Peter Sorensen wrote in a 2012 proposal.

Legislators were sold, and diverted $2 million from the Environmental Trust Fund, made up of lottery proceeds, to start the center, refurbish a lab and do research. Another $1.8 million from the Clean Water Legacy Fund runs through 2018, and also funded zebra mussel research and outreach.

“This is a very ambitious, risky path to take, to be honest. But traditional approaches have not and will not work. You kind of have to try something new,” Sorensen said in an interview. “The lakes are extremely valuable and vulnerable. I think there’s still things we can do to make a difference. I don’t think it’s too late.”

In December 2012, Sorensen and others celebrated the center’s launch. Then in 2013, the Legislature allocated $8.7 million in Environmental Trust Fund money to run it from 2013 to 2019, most of which funds staff salaries and benefits, going toward research, center operations and outreach.

The work so far

In the first two years, Sorensen hired staff, including a zebra mussel researcher and an associate director, and started five projects. Then, last May, he was ousted as its director. The University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences named Galatowitsch, who heads the fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology department, to the top spot to provide more “administrative structure,” it wrote in a letter. Sorensen is still involved as a researcher but has no say in the center’s scientific direction.

Meanwhile, the center is expanding, with 10 projects going on involving eight species, such as the early detection of zebra mussels and carp and research on pathogens in fish. Another six projects are in the works. And the center’s research lab is getting a major renovation thanks to $6 million from the 2013 bonding bill.

The center staff will be at 30 — 11 of whom are full-time — after hiring an aquatic plants researcher and an extension staff member who will do research and train citizens on monitoring lakes this year. The center has also partnered with the DNR and Minnehaha Creek Watershed District to test a chemical called Zequanox that killed off zebra mussels last year on Christmas Lake near Lake Minnetonka.

“It’s one of the most important things we can focus on because it’s affecting so many people,” Galatowitsch said of zebra mussels, adding that the mission and projects Sorensen envisioned are continuing.

But Sorensen and some members of the DNR’s Aquatic Invasive Species committee disagree, saying that the center is spreading itself too thin by veering away from the focus on zebra mussels and carp.

“I feel the initial mission is no longer intact,” Sorensen said. “It takes real focus and dedication, and I’m just concerned we’re losing that focus.”

Added Forester: “They’re not really solving the problem, but studying the problem, admiring the problem.”

The center has an advisory board chaired by DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr that has been working for months with the center to put together a strategic plan.

“Given their level of funding, they are doing all they can,” said John Barten, Three Rivers Park District’s natural resources director, who is on the DNR committee and research center’s advisory board. “I think they’re moving forward as fast as they can.”

At the research center, Galatowitsch likens it to the U developing the Honeycrisp apple and said it will take time.

“There’s been no time elapsed, research-wise,” she said. “We aren’t looking for one magic bullet; we’re not going to do the equivalent of curing cancer. There are a variety of techniques that are needed.”