New proposals offer a permanent funding source to fight invasive species in Minnesota waters — and a way to reach nonresidents, too.
Who should pay to help battle the spread of zebra mussels, Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species in Minnesota’s lakes and rivers?
And how much?
The answers have been as elusive as a lunker walleye.
A proposal last year to boost boat registration fees to pay for invasive species programs was killed at the Legislature. Only Minnesota boat owners would have had to pay the freight.
That proposal is back at the Capitol this year, along with another that would create an annual decal required for all boats, including those brought to Minnesota by nonresidents. The decals would cost from $5 for canoes to $20 for boats 25 feet or larger. Nonresidents would pay $30.
“This would provide a permanent funding source,’’ said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, the plan’s chief author.
Just as important, he said, it would allow state officials to give boat owners invasive species information yearly, instead of every three years, when boat registrations come up for renewal. Boosting state boat registration fees means that out-of-state boat owners who come to Minnesota wouldn’t get that information and that they wouldn’t have to pay to help keep the state’s lakes free of invasives, he said.
“It’s not only a revenue raiser, it would educate people coming from out of state, and they would contribute to the protection [of lakes], which seems fair,’’ said Jeff Forester, executive director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates, which represents thousands of lakeshore owners and lake associations. “It’s not fair now.’’
Currently, state officials aren’t sure how many nonresident boats are brought into the state each year.
“We don’t have any idea,’’ said Bob Meier, Department of Natural Resources assistant commissioner.
But they are potential pathways to the spread of invasive species. Already, about 140 lakes, rivers and wetlands are considered infested with zebra mussels.
The Legislature has increased funding to fight aquatic invasive species from $3.8 million in 2010 to more than $8 million last year, and it has added millions more for a new research center at the University of Minnesota. But most of the funds are one-time dollars and there is little permanent funding to pay for education, inspection or enforcement.
Boaters now pay a $5 surcharge with their three-year boat registration fee — or $1.66 a year — that is used to fight invasive species. That fee hasn’t changed since 1993. A $2 surcharge for nonresident anglers was increased last year to $5.
The state has about $8.5 million budgeted in 2013 to fight aquatic invasive species. But $4.5 million of that is one-time dollars. Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget calls for increasing general fund contributions to $3.75 million, which would keep aquatic invasive spending at about $8 million.
But Hansen, Forester and others say a reliable stream of dollars is needed to carry on the fight. At stake, Forester says, is not only the state’s $11 billion tourism industry, but a way of life for Minnesotans. Invasive species threaten the ecosystems of lakes and rivers.
“It’s going to impair fishing, and that’s what we do here,’’ he said.
His group said that it supports Hansen’s proposal but that it’s only a start. The state hasn’t moved forcefully enough or developed a comprehensive plan to fight the spread, he said.
“When you look at what’s at stake, the response isn’t commensurate with the threat,’’ he said. “We’ve had a culture of unfettered access to lakes.’’
Access might have to be restricted in the future, Forester said.
“The key is inspection prior to launch,’’ he said. “Regional inspection stations are needed, where boats are inspected and decontaminated, if necessary. It’s not an undue burden when you look at risk.’’
Hansen’s bill would eliminate a provision in the law passed by the Legislature last year that will require Minnesota’s boat owners to pass an online course on how to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species before they can trailer their boats. They will need a special decal for their trailers, which they can get only after successfully completing the course. The provision is to go into effect in 2015.
But Hansen’s proposal is fraught with questions, too.
“We have 800,000 registered boats, owned by about 500,000 people,’’ the DNR’s Meier said. “What do you do with people who own multiple boats?’’ Would they have to buy a decal for each?
“We need to act on invasive species, and this is a good start, but my members have a lot of questions,’’ said Lance Ness, president of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance and Anglers for Habitat. “Who gets the funding and what will it be used for?’’
Another question: How would the boat decal requirement be enforced on border waters with other states and Ontario?
Hansen said those and other issues will be addressed. Legislators are on recess this week, but his bill will be heard in a committee next week.
Despite the continued spread of invasive species in recent years, Forester said, it’s not inevitable that all of the state’s lakes will be infested.
“People say there’s nothing we can do; we can’t stop it. That’s inaccurate,’’ he said. “We can stop it. It will take really good education and reliable ongoing funding.’’