Zebra mussels are a form of biological pollution spreading rapidly across Minnesota lakes. So does that make the fight to combat them worthy of Legacy Fund money?

Some residents of lakeshore communities in the west metro think so, and they're mobilizing to persuade lawmakers to direct some of the $90 million raised each year for the Clean Water Legacy Fund toward zebra mussels, arguing that they're the most urgent environmental problem facing the state's lakes.

"We see this as the threat of our time, and prevention needs to happen," said Terrie Christian, president of the Association of Medicine Lake Area Citizens in Plymouth. "If we wait until afterwards, it's going to cost the state and all citizens a lot more, and our lakes are going to be wrecked."

For Christian and other lake advocates, the invasive fingernail-sized mussels are just as detrimental to clean water as too much silt or fertilizer or other pollutants. They've infested about 30 lakes across the state, including heavily trafficked Lake Minnetonka. Once introduced in a lake or stream, the mussel populations explode and cannot be stopped because they have no natural predators.

For now, the best solution to slowing their spread is to inspect and, if necessary, decontaminate all boats that leave infested waters, a daunting and costly proposition.

Opponents to using the Legacy money say that the intent of voters in passing the constitutional amendment in 2008 was mainly to clean up polluted waters, not to inspect boats.

Intent of law debated

Debate about whether to tap the Clean Water Legacy Fund has reached the Minnesota Clean Water Council, which makes recommendations to the Legislature about how the clean water money should be spent. Much of the funding has gone to state agencies in order to monitor, identify and clean up polluted waters according to the federal Clean Water Act. The funds have also been used to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, get a handle on widespread septic system problems and protect drinking water.

The money comes from voter-approved sales taxes, and according to state law, the fund "may be spent only to protect, enhance and restore water quality in lakes, rivers, and streams, and to protect groundwater from degradation, and to protect drinking water sources."

Trying to decide how and whether invasive aquatic species fit into that picture is a new concern for the council, which discussed the matter at length at a meeting last Monday.

"We've been wrestling with this a lot for the past month or so," said Pam Blixt, a member of the council and board member for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.

Blixt said the council hasn't totally closed the door on funding for invasive species projects, but its focus is to keep lakes clean or improve them, not to pay for boat inspections for boats leaving infested waters or entering noninfested lakes. "It would be very, very easy to go off in a thousand different directions with this money," she said.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chairman of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said his committee and others need to discuss further whether some projects to battle invasive species, perhaps in research or education, might be worth funding with Legacy money.

But for now, he said that boat inspections should probably be paid through other funds, such as boat license surcharges or other user fees.

Paying now or paying later

The mussels accumulate on boats and clog motors, litter beaches with razor-sharp shells, and change the ecology of fisheries by consuming food that small fish need to survive. They can spread easily, carried in bait buckets or on boats that move freely between infested and noninfested lakes.

Christian has heard comments that it's an impossible task and a waste of money to try to stop the mussels, but she said relatively few lakes have been infested so far, and thousands could be saved by prevention.

David Haas, president of the Fish Lake Area Residents Association in Maple Grove, said that if a lake becomes infested with zebra mussels, property values and property tax revenues will fall, tourists will take their business elsewhere, and boat and dock owners will face higher maintenance costs.

"Pretty much any way you cut this, it still always comes out that it's better to spend a little bit of money now than suffer the consequences of having an infested lake later," Haas said.

Other invasive pests

Zebra mussels aren't the only problem. Another is a pair of different invasive species -- bighead and silver carp -- that are spreading northward in the Mississippi River. Some have suggested that funds for a carp barrier in the river be provided by the Outdoor Heritage Fund, another arm of the Legacy Amendment dedicated to protecting fish and wildlife habitat.

According to Outdoor News, a commercial fisherman caught a silver carp -- the jumping kind -- in Mississippi Pool 6 near Winona last week -- the northernmost location in which the species has been found.

Deborah Swackhamer, professor and co-director of the Water Resources Institute at the University of Minnesota, said that invasives are "easily one of the top five natural resource issues in the state," and they can have a huge impact on ecology and recreation.

Even so, she said, "I think the priority [for Clean Water Council recommendations] is to make sure that we're dealing first and foremost with the impaired waters and compliance with the Clean Water Act." Swackhamer is also a member of the Minnesota Clean Water Council, but was speaking on her own behalf.

Lottery may help

McNamara said that the Legislature has not ignored the problem of invasive species, and the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) that uses lottery proceeds has recommended many such projects over the years. Last year lawmakers provided the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources with $5.6 million from that fund to increase boat inspections and purchase boat washing equipment. LCCMR officials have said they will consider other proposals -- broad solutions, not lake-by-lake requests -- related to controlling and preventing invasive species.

Christian said that whether funds come from lottery proceeds or sales taxes dedicated to clean water, the DNR needs partners to protect lakes, and it needs a permanent and larger source of funding -- not one-time appropriations -- to deal with aquatic invasive species on a massive scale.

"If the state really wants to protect our waters, they really need to do something upfront instead of waiting for more lakes to get infested," she said. "Once they're in a lake, the resource is forever changed."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388