For the last two years, many officials from throughout the State of Minnesota have looked on at a Wright County pilot project that has taken the lead in combatting the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS). Started in 2017 as a project that required mandatory boat inspections on four lakes – East and West Lake Sylvia, Lake John and Pleasant Lake – the program is slated to expand in 2019 to include Bass Lake, Granite Lake, Maple Lake, Moose Lake and Sugar Lake has been a process that has been the source of controversy as to how much responsibility a local government needs to take on.

At the March 19 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, a public hearing was held and the board voted 3-2 to move forward with the program expansion.

There has been a lot of support from the program from other counties and lake associations, but concern that the program should be operated (and funded) by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which has done little to nothing to combat the spread of AIS on Minnesota lakes as the spread has increased. Seventeen people spoke up at the meeting, including Kevin Farnam of the Koronis Lake Association – a lake in Paynseville that has been overrun with AIS and required $470,000 to fight the infestation that last three years with another $180,000 expected to be spent this year. He said the county needs to continue its fight to avoid problems that have plagued Koronis.

However, the need for the boat inspection program has rationale behind it. According to the DNR website of infested lakes, in 1993 only three Wright County lakes were flagged for invasive species. As of 2018, that list had grown to 41 lakes in the county identified with containing AIS. The county’s pilot project started with four lakes in the western end of the county, but the problem isn’t isolated there.

“It’s not just western Wright County, said Blaine Barkley, chair of the Lake Sylvia AIS committee. “Every major lake in Wright County has invasive species in it. I would venture Wright County has more invasive species than any other county in Minnesota by lake surface area. Every big, major lake in Wright County has invasive species in it at this point.”

Each speaker, many representing lake associations and those well-versed with the spread of AIS, brought different issues to the discussion. These included new invasive species like flowering rush that are showing up on other lakes, the need for increased enforcement, the lack of initiative from the DNR, attacking the problem with boats leaving lakes, not entering them and the fact that Hwy 55 will be closed near the Annandale boat inspection site this summer forcing boaters to take detours.

 One issue of concern with the ordinance itself is an out-clause that could potentially repeal the ordinance. It includes repeal language that states that the ordinance as approved will be repealed if the Commissioner of the DNR doesn’t formally authorize the inspection program by April 15. Commissioner Mike Potter said that the repeal inclusion was put in place to get the DNR to take a stand – one way or another – so Minnesota can avoid infestation-by-inaction that has ravaged many lakes in Michigan, where the problem began a decade ago and is now a losing battle being waged.

“The April 15 date puts the DNR on notice – take a position somewhere, so Joe Q. Public out there that’s been railing on me like you wouldn’t believe will know either they support it, are against it or (have) no comment,” Potter said. “We’ll know where they stand. We need them to be a partner. We don’t need them to put up roadblocks. We don’t need them to make it hard for us to do the right thing. We don’t want to be Michigan. We don’t want what’s on Lake Koronis. But, we need them as a partner. It’s not perfect. It’s evolving. It’s a process. You’ve got to crawl before you walk and before you run.”

The inspections can be an inconvenience to boaters, especially those unaware of the Wright County program ahead of time, as well as no guarantees of program funding beyond this year to continue the project. But, the sentiments expressed at the public hearing were that, even if the DNR isn’t willing to step up and do the job that falls under its jurisdiction, Wright County shouldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch more of their lakes get infested and die without trying to put up some defense against it.

“For this thing to work, it has to be a two-way street,” said Peter Peshek of the Wright County Coalition of Lake Associations. “The central question is can we find a way to be effective against AIS, keep users reasonably happy and can we afford it? The question is what is it worth to us in money, time and hassle to the towns, (boaters) and the county to have clean lakes versus nasty lakes? My grandson is not going to jump into a lake where it looks like floating vomit.”

Board Chair Darek Vetsch said that the project has been a laboratory for other counties, the state and the DNR to observe, because AIS is threatening lakes throughout the state. It’s a small project on a finite number of lakes, but the results coming from the program – good and bad – can be a learning tool for others as to how to combat the spread of AIS and, to that end, the program has validity.

“By no means are we getting every aspect of this covered,” Vetsch said. “The program has evolved quite a bit from last year to this year. I envision that if it goes beyond this year, it’ll make it some evolution, because it’s a pilot program. We’re finding out things that work, things that don’t work. Right now, we’re in a vacuum. We’re doing it just in Wright County – it’s not even Wright County-wide. It’s just been three lakes.”

It’s taken 25 years of the spread of AIS to get someone to act. Wright County became that entity two years ago and, despite issues, it’s a cause worth fighting for.

“Even though there is some inconvenience to this, how would you like the inconvenience of the last being total trash and you can’t get on it all?” Potter asked. “What’s on Koronis, if you get that on some smaller lakes where most of it is 10-feet (deep) or less, the whole lake’s gone. It’s an inconvenience now, but it’s going be a much bigger inconvenience later if we don’t do anything. We have no allusion of stopping it. We’re just trying to slow it down, educate and hopefully technology can catch up and help us with this problem.”

When it came time to vote, the resolution passed 3-2. Commissioner Mark Daleiden voted against it, citing unanswered questions with DNR approval and impact on campers at Schroeder Park “We’re putting the cart before the horse,” he said. Borrell also voted against it, maintaining his longstanding opposition that the program isn’t guaranteed to be funded beyond 2019 and he’s not willing to commit county dollars to pay for a program that state should be funding.

In the end, however, the other three commissioners voted in favor of expanding the program with the additional lakes. Now the ball is in the court of the DNR, which has until April 15 to give its approval or the repealer option could potentially kick in and render all the work done over the last year to be moot.

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