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State AIS battle seeing progress

By Jean Ruzicka

An Aquatic Invaders Summit, a first-ever held in St. Cloud last week, drew representation from over 50 Minnesota counties as well as watershed districts and lake association groups.

Hubbard County’s AIS Task Force chair Ken Grob and Nate Sitz, a water quality specialist with the Soil and Water Conservation District, were among the over 400 attending the Department of Natural Resources-sponsored event.

“Preventing and limiting the spread of these aquatic invaders is critical to the future of Minnesota’s water resources, the state’s annual $12.5 billion-plus tourism industry and the quality of life for Minnesotans and visitors who enjoy our state’s waters,” states the summation of the initiative.

The topics, Sitz said, included information on how AIS infestation prevention is handled, how AIS affects the food chain - specifically zebra mussels and spiny water fleas, collaborations and prevention initiatives, social marketing and more.

Hennepin County set out to determine how many people knew about AIS, learning 95 percent are aware – but may not follow up on procedures to “stop aquatic hitchhikers.”

So they simplified the signage with lights and changed the wording to be welcoming and positive, Sitz learned.

Watching boaters via binoculars, officials found them to be more receptive to boat cleaning with the simple, pleasant tone, Sitz said.

A fourth grade teacher at the LeSueur-Henderson School has engaged an “army of youth in AIS prevention,” enlisting sophomores to study AIS - terrestrial and aquatic – and share the information with fourth graders, who, in turn influence parents, Sitz said. He’d like to expand the programs in area schools beyond the Freshwater Fest. “Change starts with youth.”

Another idea to emerge was presented by a Lake Minnetonka marina owner who’s attempting to convince boat and trailer manufacturers to change the design so they drain completely.

Grob sat on the panel discussing local government AIS plans and collaborations.

In 2014, the Legislature approved two funding sources to fight the spread of AIS, $4.05 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund and $10 million annually in AIS prevention aid to Minnesota counties to plan and implement programs to prevent and limit the spread of AIS.

Hubbard County’s portion of the prevention aid was $112,160 in 2014 and will be $249,244 this year and in subsequent years.

As of November 2014, there were no known lakes or rivers in Hubbard County infested with Eurasian water milfoil, zebra mussels or spiny waterfleas, Grob reported in the AIS prevention and management plan.

Four lakes and two rivers are infested with faucet snails and there are four lakes with curly leaf pondweed. Purple loosestrife is located sporadically, he reports.

Hubbard County is home to “by far the best, most extensive watercraft inspection” in Greater Minnesota, Grob maintains.

“The most important prevention initiative is watercraft inspection and decontamination,” he said. This summer will see an expansion of inspection with more outreach to resort owners, Sitz said.

Forty paid DNR-trained and certified inspectors will be on Hubbard County lakes this summer, up from last year’s 30. The mix of retirees and college students will cover 36 to 37 accesses; last year 27 accesses were manned.

“High risk lakes are covered now; more smaller lakes will be coming on board,” he said.

Zebra mussel veliger sampling will be conducted on 23 of the county’s larger lakes, he said, primarily by volunteers. When veligers were found in the early stages on Lake Winnibigosh, the lake was declared infested. But people subsequently became more vigilant.

“The chances of getting rid of zebra mussels are slim,” Sitz said. “You can spend millions (on treatment), miss three adults and they will come back.”

Zebra mussels have been found many of the state’s bigger lakes, he said, including Cass Lake and Mille Lacs.

Zebra mussels improve water clarity with their filter feeding, but the negative impacts outweigh this single positive benefit. Zebra mussels are also “tough on the native mussels.”

“We’d like to see resort owners do checks, or have people go through the public access for checking,” he said.

Lake service providers’ three-year permits are up for renewal this year, with training to be offered in February in Park Rapids. The DNR website holds the registration information and schedule.

The DNR will also host volunteer inspection training this spring, a date yet to be determined.

Also, under new regulations, by July 1 anyone with a trailer for water-related use must go through AIS prevention training, either online or in paper form and take a test. Stickers will be issued.

Sitz is hoping to do more vegetative checks this summer for curly leaf pondweed and Eurasian milfoil. If Eurasian milfoil is found early, it can be treated with an herbicide or pulled, he said. Curly leaf is more widespread, he said of infestations on Portage, Hinds, 11th Crow Wing and upper Twin.