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Legislators, county officials discuss aquatic invasive species

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Is Minnesota becoming the land of 10,000 lakes infested with aquatic invasive species?

"We need to preserve the finest place on the face of the earth," Rep. Davis Hancock said.

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"We are the land of 10,000 lakes, and we need to protect that," Sen. Rod Skoe agreed.

Saturday morning, officials from Becker, Hubbard and Otter Tail counties, legislators from various districts throughout Minnesota and concerned citizens filled the conference room at M State, Detroit Lakes to discuss the flowering rush and zebra mussel taking over area lakes and rivers.

Pelican River Watershed District Administrator Tera Guetter said the first invasive to hit Detroit Lake was curly-leaf pondweed.

"It's more than just a nuisance," she said, showing slides of mounds and mounds of the weeds washing up on the beach and other shoreline. She added that the PRWD spends about $150,000 a year in roadside pick-up of weeds in the summer.

Since then, there have been more invasives, most notably and most talked about now, flowering rush.

Invading the lakes

Flowering rush first came to the Detroit Lakes area when a lake resident "innocently planted it on the shoreline as a decorative plant," Mayor Matt Brenk said.

Since then, it has spread to Curfman, Melissa and Buck lakes.

"This plant is not easy to drive through," Guetter said. "It's certainly not something you want in front of your house."

When it first appeared in Detroit Lake a few years ago, Guetter admitted that the watershed district cut the weeds.

"It was the only thing we knew what to do. Unfortunately, it's enabling the growth of the plant."

The plant is so new, there is very little to no research available on it. The PRWD has contacted for two studies on the growth of flowering rush and the treatment of it. The Army Corps of Engineers is growing the plant in labs and trying various treatment methods. A study with a professor from the University of Mississippi and from Concordia College is studying the growth and ecology of the plant.

She said over $1 million has been spent -- in taxpayer money -- for treatment of the plant thus far.

"Our citizens are very concerned and support us on this," Guetter said.

The public voted in November to approve a 1 percent food and beverage tax, with a portion of the funds going to help finance the two studies being conducted. The studies are $150,000 total.

Detroit Lakes City Administrator Bob Louiseau said the city spent $50,000 in weed pick up in 2010. The city averaged a dump truckload a day, and on the heavy usage times, like Fourth of July for example, the city would pick up four truckloads.

On the horizon, the next big concern is zebra mussel. For neighbors though, it's already ruining their lakes.

"Why didn't someone do something earlier to prevent zebra mussel infestation," Otter Tail County COLA President Shawn Olson said she thinks every time she thinks about the fact that Pelican Lake is now infested.

She considers the day in 2009, when zebra mussels were first identified, as the Black Day, and in one year, the mussels have taken over the lake. And it has spread to Lake Lizzie, and Prairie Lake is next in the chain, she said.

Moriya Rufer, RMB Environmental Laboratories, described how zebra mussels attach themselves to hard surfaces -- bottoms of boats, dock legs, minnow buckets, pipes, etc. -- and are hard as cement and have to be scraped off.

Another threat to Pelican Lake, she added, is that the mussels will also wash up on the shore, and beaches will no longer be sandy but instead as sharp and hard as shells, a surface people won't be able to walk barefoot on anymore.

It's even more discouraging, she said, because the lake association has preventative programs in place, and Pelican Lake was still infested with zebra mussel. The invasive produces millions and millions of eggs each year, and the larva is so small, it can't be seen, so it's easy to unknowingly spread it.

Spreading any kind of invasive is easy.

According to a Star Tribune article, "about 62,000 trailered boats come and go every year from Lake Minnetonka, and those boaters end up visiting 257 other lakes, DNR officials say. Lake Mille Lacs has similar use. Between 65,000 and 100,000 boats use Lake Mille Lacs each year, and those boaters end up visiting 171 lakes."

DNR involvement, efforts

Louiseau said the city has tried to be proactive, applying for permits to treat the flowering rush while it is still pre-emerged, but that the permits are delayed so long that emerged plants were treated with pre-emergent chemicals.

Permits were also only given to treat the swimming beach area, a small portion of the infected area.

"I believe it's time for the state of Minnesota to get involved," he said, meaning financially and trying to get the Department of Natural Resources -- the ones who grant permits -- to cooperate more at the local level.

"We can't accept this as status quo and learn to deal with it," he said of the rush. "It's critical that we work together on this."

Control needs to be turned over to the local government agencies, Zorbaz owner and founder Hanson said. It's not money holding treatment back, but "horrendous bureaucracy," he said.

"Let's not just leave (the summit) with a good feeling and then a year later, nothing's been done," he added.

As a part of the DNR, Luke Skinner said there is an aquatics invasive species prevention report coming out the end of January or first of February containing "ideas to determine the most important ideas for action that have support."

He said that the stakeholders meetings produced information on AIS laws and the enforcement needed of those laws, increasing awareness, inspection process, focus on high-use infested waters and a possible increase in penalties.

In 2009, DNR officers spent 4,800 hours to AIS enforcement. In 2010, he said, that number jumped to 12,800 hours.

"Most (invasives) are spread through people and their behaviors," he said.

Lake effects

"Water quality is so important to us," Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson agreed.

He said that 54 percent of land value in Becker County is directly related to the lakes.

In 1927, citizens changed the name from Detroit to Detroit Lakes to keep mail from going to Detroit, Mich., accidentally. Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce President Carrie Johnston said that alone showed the town's pride in its lakes.

It still shows nowadays, with the chamber adopting a "see you at the lakes" slogan to promote the area throughout the United States and Canada.

According to an Explore Minnesota Tourism 2008 study, Johnston said that 1,300 jobs in Becker County are in the leisure and hospitality industry. That industry generates $63 million in gross sales and $4 million in state taxes.

In 2007, Becker Counties' 40 resorts had over $8 million in gross sales. Guess how many resorts are on lakes.

"The economic impact is huge in this area," she said. "If the lakes aren't (clean), we're not going to see you at the lakes."

"Unless we become more vigilant regarding this priceless asset, we will see our tourist dollars shrink, our real estate values decline and our quality of life deteriorate," Hanson said.

When looking for locations to open a new Zorbaz restaurant -- he's opened 14 in 40 years -- Hanson said that the No. 1 priority is the lake it is to be located on. The quality of the lake and its beach are imperative to the success of the business.

"Those are our gold mines, our oil fields," he said of the lakes.

"I understand it's a public asset," Lake Detroiters Association President Howard Hanson said of the lakes, "but I believe local custodianship is most powerful kind."

Dan Kittilson, Hubbard County COLA president, said that Hubbard County's lakes haven't been affected much yet -- of the 40 lakes in the county, only four have curly-leaf pondweed and one lake and two rivers have faucet snails. But, that doesn't mean it's not concerning for Hubbard County.

"This is a shared interest," he said. "Our lakes are shared by everyone."

Lake users

By coming together, the group has a "better voice than the independent voice we may have," Jeff Forrester, executive director of Minnesota Seasonal and Recreational Property Owners Coalition, said.

"Some claim that containing AIS is too hard, too difficult, too inconvenient," he said. "If we do not stop the spread of AIS, local mitigation costs will soar, electricity and water treatment will become more and more expensive. Property values will decline, and fishing and recreational opportunities will be decimated. It is much cheaper to stop AIS than cope (with it) after the fact."

Curtis Junt, a North Dakota resident, said even though he isn't a resident of Minnesota, "this is the No. 1 place I want to be."

The greatest resource is the lakes.

"Ninety-nine percent of our vacation budget went to your state. There is no other place on earth I'd rather be," he said of the past years, bringing his family to Minnesota to vacation.

Chuck Johnson, a salmon fisherman from Perham, said he likes to fish Lake Michigan waters, but that lake is infested with quagga mussels, an AIS that is worse that zebra mussels, he said.

He warned legislators and the public that Minnesota has let these invasives infest the waters, and now everyone needs to pull together to prevent the next infestation.

Carl Towley said infestations isn't anything new, and that if Minnesota truly wants to eradicate its AIS problems, the state needs to quarantine its lakes like other states like California, Colorado, Idaho and Arizona have.

"We're up against a beast."

It's not just about education though, he added, something needs to actually be done.

"Education is good," Lucy Johnson agreed, "but it's too late for many of us with prevention only. We need intervention."

Legislative support

"This is not a democratic or republican issue, it's a Minnesotan issue," Sen. John Carlson said via a letter since he couldn't attend the summit.

Skoe said he appreciates the local leadership and that DNR rules need to change. He also said Legacy Funds need to be used to help in funding these studies and treatments.

"We need a mindset change," he said.

Rep. Kent Eken said rather than the state wanting to acquire more land, it needs to focus on what it has and protect it.

"We're not adequately taking care of the land we have."

Rep. Paul Marquart said when he met summit organizer Barb Halbakken Fischburg during his campaign for re-election, he heard for a good 40 minutes about AIS and her concerns.

"If we could bottle some of that passion, we're going to be in a good stead for moving forward.

"I am not confident we can control this through education and enforcement."

He said that if a man can be put on the moon, there has to be something to be done about aquatic invasive species.

Rep. Bud Nornes said that the summit was very educational and "when you see it firsthand, it sinks in. I'm on board with whatever we can do to eliminate and eradicate."

"This is an economic issue and a quality of life issue," Marquart said. "We've heard your message loud and clear."

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