by John Holler
Over the last two years, Wright County has taken the lead in a pilot project called the Wright Regional Inspection Program (WRIP) to require boat inspections as way of combatting Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) that have been infested Minnesota lakes in alarming numbers be slowed down.
At the April 16 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, it would appear that WRIP has a new acronym – R.I.P.
When the county board approved plans to expand the AIS inspection program from three lakes to nine lakes at its March 19 meeting, a caveat was put in the ordinance that would repeal ordinance approval on April 15 if the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) didn’t sign off on support of the expansion of the program. The DNR informed the county in an April 5 letter that it would not endorse proposed changes and, in the process, has effectively ended county involvement in the program entirely – for 2019 and perhaps beyond.
“The Wright Regional Inspection Program at this time will not be in operation in Wright County on any of the lakes,” County Board Chair Darek Vetsch said. “At this time, (Wright County) Soil & Water (District) is going to transition into what we had done in 2016 – basically random inspections of ramps throughout the county with the allocations based on size and traffic flow.”
In its conclusions of the plan submitted by the county to expand the program, the DNR denied any support of expanding the program given several issues, including questions related to the data produced by the study to date, the continuity of the project from one year to the next and the inclusion of a “buy out” option to avoid going to inspection stations by taking a class to inform boaters what inspectors need to look for.
Bob Meier, assistant commissioner for policy and government relations for the DNR, said the DNR didn’t have a problem with the initial AIS project that was focused on three lakes – East/West Sylvia, John and Pleasant. However, the expansion to nine lakes and the new inclusion of self-inspections required a denial of support.
“We approved the pilot project as it was last year,” Meier said. “We were concerned about expanding the pilot project to the six additional lakes because there were still issues that we’ve previously identified with performance and data issues from the 2018 program that we just couldn’t justify the expansion of the pilot project with these questions out there still. We appreciate the hard work that these lake association people have put into the program. We would like to continue to work with them, but we just can’t allow for the expansion until all the questions are answered.”
Meier added that, while the DNR remains interested in the data that was collected from the project in its first two years, for a pilot program to succeed, the variables by which the data is collected has to remain similar over time. With change comes new and different data and the feeling at the DNR level was that the program was expanding before it could provide enough data from one year to the next under the same conditions.
“We were willing to extend the program as it operated last year,” Meier said. “When you have a pilot project, you like to examine the same variables for a period of years. We had variables from a short season in 2017. We had a full season of operation in 2018 that we still have some questions about. We need to evaluate another year – at least – of an operation that is consistent year to year rather than change the program. They operated at one year at capacity for those three lakes and wanted to expand to nine lakes and throw in a variable where a person could pay $40, take a class and be exempt from the program. How do you evaluate something when it is continually changing?”
The county’s approval of the expansion of the program that was held at the March 19 meeting had a repeal poison pill included because the ordinance passed by a 3-2 vote. Commissioner Mark Daleiden voted against it, citing concerns about the self-inspection component of the expansion and the lack of DNR endorsement that “in good conscience” he couldn’t support. Commissioner Charlie Borrell voted against it, citing concerns about expanding the program without long-term funding assurances.
Commissioner Christine Husom said the training component of the 2019 ordinance was a critical part of the proposed expansion – helping to educate boaters to see the signs of what to look for and where to look for invasive species – knowledge that could be shared with others, whether they boat on Wright County lakes or elsewhere.
She contended that the pilot project was designed to protect the lakes in Wright County that a stipend from the state didn’t adequately cover. A lot of eyes were on the project from other Minnesota counties with similar AIS introduction problems. The Wright County program was blueprinted from DNR documentation related to how such lone-wolf projects should proceed.
“What I find ironic about the response is that, in 2013, the DNR had its AIS study and they looked at regional inspections,” Husom said. “Their study showed how cost effective it would be to have what they called ‘centralized inspection programs.’ Yet, it didn’t get implemented. We’ve gone forward and passed an ordinance supportive of their findings and they have found reason not to let us operate.”
The impasse was rendered moot when the repeal option from the initial vote kicked in and took force April 15. Vetsch said the AIS group that has grown over the last two years and was instrumental in expanding the program is going to meet to see where the program can go without county and DNR involvement. He added that there remains some hope that legislation may be passed to continue the program in a different form at some point, but for now, the program has been shut down completely.
The money to fund the pilot project above and beyond the DNR allocation came largely from a grant from the state’s Initiative Fund and, if the program is shut down for all of 2019, those funds will likely be turned back unused.
Commissioner Mike Potter summed up the current climate of the local enforcement of AIS infestation and the partnership with the DNR in a state symbolic with its lakes. The DNR is doing what it’s required to do. Those who don’t feel that is enough are doing what they can do. Those two objectives don’t always meet.
“This shouldn’t be our fight,” Potter said. “We decided to take this on so we could avoid having a Lake Koronis (infestation) happen here. We got a lot of support from the people most impacted by the concerns over our lakes having the same problem. We did our part where the DNR didn’t. It’s a shame if the program goes away, because our goal was to protect our lakes and let other counties know we could do something on our own.”
Barring an unforeseen change on the horizon, the WRIP will remain in R.I.P. status.
John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.