No one can accuse Peter Sorensen of being timid.
He proposed a world-class invasive species research center at the University of Minnesota to fight zebra mussels, Asian carp and other critters that have invaded and threaten Minnesota waters.
Then he convinced tightfisted politicians to fork over $12.5 million to fund it over the next six years. Workers soon will begin upgrading a U lab where invasive species will be studied, and researchers will be hired beginning this fall.
Sorensen's goals for the center are equally ambitious -- some might say audacious: Figure out how to slow the spread of aquatic invasive species, reduce their abundance and ultimately develop ways to eradicate them.
"It is ambitious, but I just felt we had to try," said Sorensen, 57. "You can't just throw up your arms and give up. What if people did that with polio or the plague? Some think it's too late. It's not too late. Yes, a lot of lakes are infested, but it's still a small number.
"So we're going to try. We'll throw everything at it. Eventually we'll figure it out. Hopefully sooner rather than later."
The center, and funding for it, has been on a fast track, prompted by concern over the continued spread of zebra mussels, Eurasian water milfoil and other invaders. In the past 10 days, zebra mussels have been found in two more popular lakes -- Pelican near Brainerd and Minnewaska near Glenwood -- bringing the total number of infested waters to 28 lakes and nine rivers.
Sorensen pitched his idea to the Legislature just last winter. Legislators diverted $2 million from the Environmental Trust Fund (lottery proceeds) and $1.8 million from the Clean Water Legacy Fund to launch the center. About half that money will go to renovations at the university.
Earlier this month, the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) recommended spending $8.7 million in Environmental Trust Fund money, which will fund the center for six years. The proposal still must be approved by the full Legislature next winter, but it had bipartisan support by the 10 legislators on the commission.
That money would come next July 1.
"That would really get us rolling," Sorensen said. "They recognized the complexity and severity of the issues."
The bulk of the dollars -- $7 million -- will be spent on salaries and benefits of researchers. Among them: four professors, four research assistant professors, three post-doctoral fellows, three lab technicians, seven graduate students and an administrative director. Not all will be full-time, and not all will work all six years. Sorensen will be scientific director, earning about $63,000 in salary and benefits for that role. He would also be paid to do other research work.
Researchers, of course, aren't earning minimum wage. One assistant professor would earn about $119,000 yearly in salary and benefits; another about $99,000.
The budget also includes $965,000 for equipment and supplies; $461,000 for travel, including collecting samples; and $276,000 for other equipment.
But no one wants to find out how invasive species, left unchecked, could affect the state's $11 billion-a-year tourist industry.
By fall, Sorensen hopes to hire a person to begin working on Asian carp and another to work on zebra mussels. "The state desperately needs that. We don't have research expertise in those areas," Sorensen said.
Future funding, of course, is uncertain, but Sorensen hopes the center grows as other sources of funding are found. To start, work will focus on zebra mussels, common and Asian carp and Eurasian watermilfoil.
The plan is to determine the extent of the aquatic invasive species infestation, and develop techniques to control them. Those could include biological, chemical or pathological controls.
"Although ambitious, eradication is our ultimate goal," Sorensen said in his proposal to the LCCMR. The introduction of a pathogen or natural disease that kills an invasive species might hold the most promise.
"They have controlled some species in Australia," using those methods, Sorensen said. "We might just hit a home run."
"Every species has a weakness," he added. "It's just a question of how hard you have to work to find it."
Doug Smith email@example.com Twitter: @dougsmithstrib