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COLA group continues war against AIS

Dan Kittilson is president of Hubbard County COLA. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

If a few drops of residual water in a live well can make a difference in the war against Aquatic Invasive Species, Hubbard County COLA might have a simple solution - an ordinary kitchen sponge.

At the Coalition of Lake Associations annual meeting Thursday night, Hubbard County members voted unanimously to begin a "sponge fund."

Imprinted with a COLA logo or other advertiser, the sponges would be given out in exchange for charitable contributions. Because of the tax status of the organization, COLA can't outright sell the sponges under IRS rules.

But an exchange program could be fully operational, well in time for the Governor's Fishing Opener May 11, 2013, members agreed.

"Ninety-nine percent of boats don't have a sponge" or towel to clean the residue after a drain plug is pulled in a boat, watercraft inspector Julie Kingsley reported.

"Veligers can live in that water for days."

Veligers are the plankton form of zebra mussels. Their spread into north country lakes has put lake activists on high alert. Hubbard County organizations have employed a dozen watercraft inspectors this summer at crucial public access points throughout the county to ward against a possible infestation.

But Kingsley said the residual water in the drain needs mopping, or soaking up in a sponge.

All manner of non-native species could be lurking in that water, not just zebra mussels.

This week came the DNR revelation that zebra mussels had been found in the Gilbert pit, a mining pit in northeastern Minnesota.

Zebra mussels can ruin a lake's health and the associated property values of its residents. Razor sharp mussel shells will kill any desire to walk on a beach or swim in a lake, infested lakes have learned.

The mussels devour nutrients other lake aquatic species depend on for survival. Lakeshore residents are frantically trying to clean up their lakes amid plummeting property values in the Alexandria and Brainerd areas.

The Department of Natural Resources has launched many campaigns to thwart the spread of zebra mussels.

Hubbard County COLA is mounting its own, called "clean, drain and dry."

Sponges could be distributed to out-of-town boaters for sopping up that potentially tainted residue that could come from a contaminated lake elsewhere.

The summer program has encountered a few obstacles and resistance.

But education is the key.

Mark Sommer, Soil and Water Conservation District director, has overseen the summer watercraft inspection project and recently made a bid to hire a full-time person in his office that would coordinate inspections and handle other clean water projects.

The county board has not yet approved the position, but it has a groundswell of support from lake residents.

Otherwise, lake associations strapped for enforcement funds could be closing their public access points, which would send a dim tourism message.

"Early detection is very important," Hubbard County AIS Task Force chair Ken Grob said, preaching to the choir.

The DNR has talked of setting up a state task force, a citizens advisory committee that would assume oversight of the massive AIS war.

Although state appropriations doubled this year from $4 million to $8 million, it's just not enough to monitor all Minnesota lakes and lake traffic, COLA members agreed.

COLA president Dan Kittilson urged the 50 representatives assembled Thursday, all members of local lake associations, to begin fundraising for watercraft inspectors as a backup plan in case all other funding avenues are stymied.

COLA members also discussed briefly how to organize for the upcoming legislative session, to prioritize areas of concern they want lawmakers to address.

"We need to focus on strategy and the direction of the organization," Grob reminded the group.

And many expressed concern that Kittilson is overburdened running the association.

He joked Thursday that he needed to get a job to reduce his workload. The organization plans on looking into as many as three vice presidents that would share the workload.

"We need to get the task delegated and the work spread out," said Chuck Diessner. "We need to step up and take responsibility."

Two candidates for public office sat in on the meeting, Mathew Dotta, who is running for the Dist. 2 commission seat, and Dan Stacey, who is running in the fourth district, were introduced.

Kittilson said COLA as a group won't endorse any one candidate, but individual members are free to support the candidate of their choice.

"We stay neutral as a group," he said.

Meanwhile, the sponge campaign soaked up attention as members theorized how to imprint them with a sponsorship message.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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