For years, protecting Minnesota's lakes and rivers has focused on the state level.

But that focus is shifting to local leaders, with new local collaboration and money aimed to combat the spread of aquatic invasive species in the state's waterways.

For the first time, local and state conservation leaders, scientists, boaters, marina owners, tourism leaders and others concerned about growing zebra mussels and other invasive species are meeting this week in a state summit.

The first-ever summit Tuesday and Wednesday in St. Cloud is expected to become annual, helping local leaders learn from each other and what other states are doing to slow the spread of invasive species. It follows the state starting to funnel funding to county government programs for invasive species prevention, with $4.5 million in 2014 and $10 million this year.

"This money has never gotten down to the grass roots level. I think it will really move the needle," said Jeff Forester of the Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates, one of the summit sponsors. "It's really a shot of energy to local communities. People have been sitting back and saying the DNR needs to fix this problem. But the reality is they can't."

The state summit precedes a national one next week in Las Vegas focused on boat design's impact on the spread of invasive species, sponsored by the state of Minnesota, Tonka Bay Marina on Lake Minnetonka, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Back in Minnesota, more than 350 people are expected to attend this week's state summit, also sponsored by the Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts, the Department of Natural Resources and the Association of Minnesota Counties. It's hosted by the Initiative Foundation, a Little Falls-based organization that received $4 million from the state to distribute in local grants this year for pilot projects that are doing new things to prevent aquatic invasive species.

"$4 million is merely an opportunity to test innovative ideas … but it could help direct [future] policy," said Don Hickman, an aquatic biologist and leader at the Initiative Foundation.

In Minnesota, zebra mussels are perhaps the most well-known invasive species, attaching to boats, docks, rocks and other solid surfaces. They quickly proliferate by the millions and have infected more than 200 waterways. Other species such as quagga mussels are not yet here, but are expected, too.

"These are worse than what we have now," Forester said, adding about the impact: "I think you'd be hard pressed to find a Minnesotan that didn't spend time on a lake or have a connection to a lake."

In fact, the state ranks No. 1 in the country for boat ownership per capita. Any change to the state's lakes could impact not just boaters, but resorts, lake businesses and the state's $12.5 billion tourism economy.

"We have so much to protect in Minnesota because so many jobs and businesses depend on that," said Barb Halbakken Fischburg of the Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations. "Infusing that money locally is the right place for it."

Local aid to lakes

She's also president of the Lake Detroiters Lake Association and the local state money the area received, she said, bought a decontamination unit and doubled the amount of inspectors checking boats for aquatic invasive species.

"The $10 million [to local counties] was kind of a game-changer," she said. "The Legislature recognizes how much locals have been doing to protect local waterways."

Now, at this week's summit, Forester will present a framework aimed to help local groups put together plans to combat the spread of invasive species, making the response more uniform statewide.

"We can't do this alone and the DNR can't do it alone," Halbakken Fischburg said. "We've all got to work together."