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Threatened waters

Aquatic invasive species not only impact the health of a lake, but the economic health of the lakes area community.

There’s a fine balance between protecting a lake from aquatic invasive species and restricting the public’s use of a publicly owned waterway.

Who is responsible for paying for the treatment and monitoring of lakes to stop the spread — lake associations, the Minnesota DNR, local municipalities or violators caught illegally transporting them on boats?

Panelists discussed these questions and the many complicated aspects of combating aquatic invasive species at a forum hosted Oct. 17 at Ideal Township Town Hall. The event was co-hosted by state Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, and the Crow Wing Lakes and Rivers Alliance (LARA).

Phil Hunsicker, LARA president, served as moderator of the event attended by about 40 people.

Panelists were Kristen Blann, freshwater ecologist from The Nature Conservancy; Mike O’Brien, a LARA board member and president of the Lower South Long Lake Improvement Association; Paula West, LARA board member and a Mission Lake Association board member; Steve Erickson, a Kimble Lake Association member; Clyde Clement, a Pelican Lake Association member; Steve Hirsch, director of the DNR Division of Ecological and Water Resources; and Ann Pierce, DNR aquatic invasive species program supervisor.

Hirsch, who has spent 37 years working for the DNR, said aquatic invasive species, like zebra mussels, Eurasian water milfoil and curly-leaf pondweed, are extremely difficult to manage because of the rate of spread and because they require all local and state agencies, including lake associations, to work together.

Hirsch said the state needs a long-term dedicated source of funding to combat the problem.

“I’ve never seen anything like the invasive species issue, as far as trying to manage it,” Hirsch said. “This is a huge issue and it’s not going away.”

“This is a very serious problem for us in Crow Wing County,” added West, noting the Brainerd lakes area relies heavily on the tourism industry. “This is critical to our quality of life. It’s not just hurting our lakes, it’s about hurting our local economy.”

West said she would like to see the state increase the boat license surcharge, required every three years, from $5 to $15. She said the additional funding would raise about $4 million a year to deal with aquatic invasive species.

“You spend more money than that on beer, bait and gas to go out and fish for an afternoon,” West said.

She said lake associations, like her own, are raising funds on their own to combat the problem themselves.

“We in lake associations are carrying the burden of managing aquatic invasive species in public waters. We shouldn’t have to bear that,” she said.

Clement said there needs to be stiffer penalties for boaters caught transporting invasive species on their boats or boat trailers. As of July 1, the fine for transporting aquatic plants went from $50 to $100 and the fine for possessing or transporting a prohibited invasive species, like zebra mussels, is now $500.

“If you shoot a deer illegally the fine is greater than if you infected Pelican Lake,” Clement said. “We spent thousands and thousands of dollars to communicate the issue. Now we need to enforce the issue.”

Clement said he feels one solution is restricting lake accesses so that lake monitors can be hired to man the accesses and check boats.

Erickson said he believes what would be more effective would be highway enforcement stops to check for aquatic invasive species.

Audience members offered questions to the panelists. One person asked whether the DNR should deny licenses for fishing tournaments on infested lakes.

“Personally I would find it hard to justify it on fishing tournaments, because they are one of many lake users,” Hirsch said, adding it would be difficult to single out different groups who use the lakes.

An audience member asked about the chances of Asian carp being found here. Hirsch said Asian carp are the biggest threat to Minnesota right now. He said if they are able to get past the Twin Cities metro area, the biggest concern would be Mille Lacs Lake.

Hirsch said if Asian carp can get beyond the fish barriers at St. Anthony Falls and the Coon Rapids Dam, there isn’t much to stop them from entering Mille Lacs Lake.

He said the barriers are good, but no man-made dam is 100 percent effective. He said the greatest area right now threatened by Asian carp is in southwestern Minnesota.

The panel was asked about the long-term effects that zebra mussels have on a lake. Hirsch said information on the long-term effects are spotty and involve studies of the Great Lakes, which are different bodies of water than found here.

He said zebra mussels filter large volumes of water in order to feed on plankton and can intercept the foundation of the food chain within a lake. However, Hirsch said there are no catastrophic effects known at this time.

He said if nothing else, they are a pain for lake users. They can cut up your feet when you step on them and attach themselves to docks and boats.

Erickson and O’Brien discussed the benefits of a Lake Improvement District, or LID, which allows a lake association to assess lakeshore owners in order to raise funds to protect the lake. O’Brien said because South Long Lake is a designated LID, landowners within 1,000 feet from the shoreline are assessed $80 per year, which raises $30,000 to $35,000 a year to combat the lake’s curly-leaf pondweed problem.

West said LIDs are not always the answer. She said for a lake to be designated as an LID, 60 percent of property owners must sign a petition and agree to it, which doesn’t always happen.

Hirsch said a statewide task force is now being formed to chart a strategic direction for combating aquatic invasive species. So far there have been more than 100 applicants for the 15 positions on the task force, which will be made up of people representing lake associations, angling groups, geographical ranges and those who have experience with the issue, he said.