As watermilfoil, starry stonewort and other invasive weeds continue their incursion into Minnesota’s lakes, the state has resumed a popular grant program to help local lake associations fight back.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) began collecting an increased fee this week on boat registrations — the first increase on a special surcharge for invasive species management in more than 20 years. The increase, $5.60 per boat, is expected to raise about $900,000 over the next two years.

The bulk of that money will go to lake associations, cities and counties to help pay for lake testing, chemical spraying and inspectors to monitor public boat launches. The grants will have to be matched by homeowners or other local sources.

Lawmakers stopped funding the grants two years ago during a period of state budget cuts, causing home- and cabin owners on lakeshores across the state to either cut back their efforts or pay more out of pocket. Property owners argued that those costs should be shared by all Minnesota boaters who use the lakes and share responsibility for spreading invasives, which can latch onto boats and be carried to uninfested waters.

DNR officials hope to start issuing grants by the end of the summer, but the majority of the money raised won’t be used until next year, said Heidi Wolf, DNR invasive species unit supervisor.

“There will be some treatments, but there won’t be much this season,” Wolf said. “Usually a lot of [the grants] go out in the spring because that’s when you treat for curly-leafed pondweed and Eurasian watermilfoil.”

The DNR will set aside $100,000 this year as an emergency fund to immediately target any new breakouts of starry stonewort or zebra mussels, which are particularly aggressive and damaging to native fish and plant species as well as pipes and culverts. If the state sees no new infestations, the DNR will use that money next year to offer more treatment grants to lake associations and municipalities.

The return of the state grants will be welcomed on Lake Minnetonka, which attracts about 62,000 boat launches from its public access points every year, said Eric Evenson, director of the Lake Minnetonka Association.

“We’re glad it’s back. It’s a good start. But the nature of the problem is much greater than the resources that are being put into it,” Evenson said.

Lake Minnetonka has been infested with watermilfoil for decades. The Lake Association is now spraying the weeds in six bays of the large lake with some success. Depending on how bad the infestation is, the association might pay up to $15,000 to treat a single bay in a year. The grants would help either alleviate some of that cost for homeowners or increase the treatments on Minnetonka.

Showing results

In Lake Minnetonka, the treatments are starting to show results, Evenson said. Some years, the milfoil doesn’t show up at all in bays that had been infested. And, for the first time in a long time, people are starting to see native plants grow in certain areas of the lake, Evenson said.

“That’s pretty exciting because we know that if we can get healthy native plants to grow, that will make it a little more difficult for these invasives to come in and take hold,” he added.

About 75 miles northwest of Minnetonka, Rice Lake near Paynesville has avoided watermilfoil so far but has been fighting starry stonewort weeds for the past four years.

The Rice Lake Association and Stearns County have been spraying and monitoring the infestation in an effort to keep it contained to the areas near the public boat launches where it has taken hold, said Susan Anderson, Lake Association president.

“Everything we get, we use for surveys, inspections and chemical treatment,” Anderson said. “Without it, I don’t know what we’d do.”

Anderson said she’s glad the state has found a way to spread the cost of fighting invasives across all boaters, not just cabin owners or counties with infestations.

“These are all public waters and we know that these species are transported mostly by boat,” she said.