Residents around three lakes that are a quick boat-trailer pull from zebra mussel-infested Lake Minnetonka are digging into their own pockets to staff public boat launches to protect their lakes from the spread of the dreaded aquatic creatures.

They want all boats headed for Lake Minnewashta, Lotus Lake or Christmas Lake inspected for aquatic invasive species before they are launched into the water. They have raised thousands of dollars and, in addition to relying on volunteers, they are paying college students and interns from the Department of Natural Resources.

To streamline their efforts, they are seeking permission from Carver County and the city of Chanhassen to combine inspections for all three lakes at Lake Minnewashta Regional Park. That's where boaters heading to nearby Christmas Lake or Lotus Lake would get a punch-in code to raise boat ramp gates on those lakes.

Their proposal, conjuring up images of closed ramps that run against Minnesota's long-standing open lakes access, has stirred emotions and sparked letters to the editor suggesting elitism on the part of lake homeowners.

One boater made repeated stops at Lotus Lake, in apparent defiance of the volunteer inspection effort, that led a DNR conservation officer to investigate.

But it also embraces the intensity of a difficult, rapidly spreading problem that bodes poorly for state lakes.

"This is not a homeowners vs. the rest of the world issue," said Brian Kirkvold, a member of the Lotus Lake Homeowners Association who does not live on the lake. "We don't want to restrict access to anybody; we just want the inspections done."

The concern is fueled by Lake Minnetonka, the metro area's biggest lake and a popular boating magnet, where zebra mussels were first discovered last year. With much boat traffic between it and neighboring lakes, the lake associations fear that without more inspections, their three lakes will be infested next.

Last weekend the DNR launched a stepped-up attempt to stop the spread of zebra mussels and other aquatic invasive species by giving 17 of its own inspectors new authority to inspect and clean boats and bar them from the water if necessary.

That news was greeted unfavorably by the lake associations, which say making the authority exclusive to DNR inspectors effectively undercuts their volunteers, who also are trained by the DNR.

Before the associations could carry out their combined-inspections experiment, government approvals would be needed at several levels.

Chanhassen's decision is whether to support the inspection effort by putting up a code-activated gate on the city boat ramp on Lotus Lake.

The council's park and recreation advisory commission is scheduled to discuss the issue at a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Chanhassen City Hall.

Carver County is weighing whether to allow Lake Minnewashta Regional Park to be the combined site for the combined inspections. And the DNR is deciding whether authority exists under the law to hold inspections for one lake at another lake.

The Lotus Lake group raised $8,000 to pay 13 college students to act as inspectors this summer at the Lotus Lake boat ramp in Chanhassen. Another 70 lake-area residents also underwent inspection training.

"We have had several weekends where we had it covered from 6 a.m. to 8 or 9 at night," Kirkvold said.

The Lake Minnewashta Preservation Association also has been able to post inspectors at the boat ramp at Lake Minnewashta Regional Park about 90 percent of the time during park hours of 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

"We are private citizens paying for the inspectors and we citizens view this as somewhat of a tax that is placed on us unfairly," but a zebra mussel infestation is so feared that people are willing to pay, said Steve Gunther, preservation association president.

Because paying volunteers all summer could easily top $20,000 at each lake, the three associations are eager to join forces on one combined inspection program at Lake Minnewashta Regional Park.

The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District has agreed to head the pilot inspection plan and the city of Shorewood has agreed to have a gate on its boat ramp on Christmas Lake.

Lotus Lake confrontation

The grass-roots effort began earlier this summer and was in place during the state government shutdown. On Lotus Lake, a Chanhassen boater showed up several times at the boat ramp to question the authority of the inspections. A DNR conservation officer investigated but found no reason for charges.

The DNR has said it does not favor limiting access for boaters and reacted coolly to the lake associations' proposal.

"We are asking what authority they will be using to require an inspection at an off-site location," said Jim Japs, manager of the DNR's Ecosystem Management and Protection Section.

Joe Shneider, president of the Christmas Lake Homeowners Association, said the DNR is "dragging its feet" to avoid inconveniencing boaters instead of helping people prevent the spread of invasive species.

Given the relatively small number of DNR inspectors with boat-banning authority and the large number of lakes requiring inspections in Minnesota, there's room for the kind of pilot program the associations are proposing, Gunther said.

Of the DNR's new authority, he said, "We don't think it goes far enough or fast enough."

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711