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The Pelican Lake debate: Residents rebut claims of zebra mussel takeover

PELICAN LAKE, Minn. - Many residents of this lake in Minnesota's Otter Tail County want the rest of the world to know something:

Yes, Pelican Lake has zebra mussels.

But no, it hasn't meant the end of quality times at the lake.

More specifically, they say zebra mussels have not changed Pelican's weed picture, nor have the mollusks' sharp-edged shells caused significant problems for swimmers.

Jeff Peltier, a longtime resident of the lake and sailing instructor at the Pelican Lake Yacht Club, said many on the lake were upset this summer by media stories they feel painted an inaccurate picture of what is happening on the lake, particularly when it comes to weeds and zebra mussels.

Contrary to what some have said, Peltier maintains that weeds are no more a problem than they have ever been, though he added that lower water levels created by dry conditions may give the impression weeds are more prevalent than in the past.

"The weeds that are there have had a longer growing season, so they are taller," Peltier said. "A combination of the weeds being a little taller and the water being a little lower, it would seem to the untrained eye that there are more weeds, but it's not true."

He said weeds can pop up in some places when there is a drop in human activity, such as when children or grandchildren aren't around as much.

"They go, 'Oh, we have weeds.' Well, really they have weeds because they lost their traffic," Peltier said.

Dave Majkrzak agrees.

"The whole weed thing just comes and goes," said Majkrzak, a resident of Pelican Lake and the inventor of the Crary WeedRoller, a mechanical device used to keep lake bottoms clear of vegetation.

Majkrzak said factors that play into weed growth include water and snow cover depth.

He said a lack of snow last winter allowed more sunlight to penetrate the lake, giving weed growth a head start in the spring.

What does worry lake residents are stories circulating that he says are based on hearsay and not facts, Peltier said.

And the facts, he said, are not always clear when people talk about zebra mussels and how they affect lakes.

Weighing impacts

On the one hand, Peltier and Majkrzak acknowledge that zebra mussels, an invasive species targeted by state officials, do filter water and make it clearer.

Clearer water allows more sunlight to reach weeds, theoretically improving conditions for their growth.

But zebra mussels have not significantly increased water clarity on Pelican Lake since they began appearing four or five years ago, Peltier said, an assertion that is backed up by data compiled by the Pelican Group of Lakes Improvement District.

A report prepared by Moriya Rufer, the group's water resource coordinator, states that many area lakes experienced increased plant growth and density in 2012, possibly due to an early ice-out along with extra warm water temperatures.

The report noted 2012 was the third-warmest summer on record in Minnesota.

Peltier said that while zebra mussels are sometimes viewed as a threat to fish because they can potentially alter an ecosystem's food chain, he maintained that has not been the experience of lakes in the eastern United States that have had the mussels for decades.

He added that while zebra mussels are sharp and can pose a hazard to swimmers, they have not been a problem for kids in his sailing school.

Pelican Lake's Castaway Club, which hosts 3,500 kids every summer, reported just four instances of swimmers being cut by something in the water last summer, Peltier said.

"There again," he said, "none of us know for sure if it was the zebra mussel, or something else sharp in the lake. The data shows our kids are not getting all cut up."

Alternate view

Erika Johnson, who lives in Detroit Lakes and grew up at her parents' lake cabin on Pelican Lake, has a different view of what is happening.

She said the past two summers brought big changes, including a proliferation of weeds and zebra mussel shells at Pelican Lake that cut swimmers' feet.

"What I'm saying is, Pelican Lake has seen extreme changes from my perspective - in front of my dock - that we have not seen our entire three generations of being there," said Johnson, who spoke out on the same subjects for a story published this past summer and since has occasionally been taken to task by lake residents who don't share her view.

"I have had pushback from people on perceptions," she said.

How does Johnson respond to the criticism?

"I was like, 'It's true. It's really bad,' " she said.

In a letter to the editor, Johnson maintained that arguing about how much weeds may change from dock to dock "is getting away from the fact that our lake is changing and efforts need to be focused on how each of us can take action to improve our lakes, preserve their integrity and stop the spread of invasive species that I choose to believe are causing many of these changes."

Big picture

Terry Kalil, vice president of the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations, spends a lot of time researching the effects of invasive species on lakes around the country.

What is known about zebra mussels is that the creatures are powerful scrubbers that can greatly change the clarity of lake water, she said.

That can have a two-fold effect, Kalil said: less algae and therefore less food for the food chain, which in turn may affect fish populations.

On the other hand, she said, clearer water and greater sunlight penetration can boost vegetation, which may result in better fish habitat and more fish.

Whatever the ultimate impact of zebra mussels on fish and weeds is, Kalil said greater attention must be paid in Minnesota to stopping the spread of invasive plant and animal species of all kinds.

She cited a recent study of lakeshore property values in Vermont that found values declined 16.4 percent due to infestations of Eurasian watermilfoil, an exotic species of plant that Pelican Lake is yet free of but which has been spreading in Minnesota.

Kalil said the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations will be part of a lobbying effort in the next Minnesota legislative session that will work to stiffen penalties for those who do not decontaminate boats and other items transported between lakes.

Peltier and Majkrzak stressed it is important to stay focused on what is actually happening at Pelican Lake, saying zebra mussel fallout is not as dire as some make it out to be.

To those whose lake may someday be dealing with the little hardcases, Majkrzak had this to say: "We don't want 'em, that's all obvious. But if you get 'em, it's not the end of the world."