War on zebra mussels: 'Now or never'
By Dennis Lien
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Published May 12, 2006
Small, striped shellfish that reproduce at explosive rates, zebra mussels have settled into the Mississippi River all the way up to the Twin Cities, killing native mussels and causing problems for anglers and river-related businesses.
In the past few years, they've also reached deeper into Minnesota, finding life in the popular Brainerd lakes area and Lake Mille Lacs, the heart and soul of the state's walleye industry.
Now the sharp-shelled creatures are poised to invade the rest of the state's 10,000-plus lakes. So forget leisurely wading in bare feet or a soft, sandy stroll along the shore.
Only a monumental effort will slow their progress, said Dick Osgood, who has trumpeted the cause.
"It's near an emergency situation," said Osgood, executive director of the Lake Minnetonka Association and public policy chair of Minnesota Waters, a statewide group of lakes and rivers organizations. "It's now or never if we really want to stop them from moving around."
Minnesota Waters wants the state to step up efforts to control the spread of zebra mussels, Eurasian natives that entered the Great Lakes in the late 1980s and have hitchhiked on boats and barges to other lakes and rivers in the Mississippi basin.
Extremely prolific, the thumbnail-size creatures encrust themselves on hard surfaces, suffocating and starving native mussels, clogging utility pipes and motors, and fouling beaches.
To stop their advance, Minnesota Waters has called for a more focused, ambitious boat-inspection program: restricting lake accesses to streamline inspections; requiring inspections of boats leaving infested lakes; and charging fees on licenses or boat launchings to pay for that work.
This year, it asked Gov. Tim Pawlenty to give the Department of Natural Resources' invasive species program more money and to direct the DNR to re-examine its policy of not restricting accesses on lakes with more than one public access.
"Unless Minnesota puts more resources toward preventing the spread and containment of these species, there will be devastating ecological, social and economic impacts to our state," a letter from Minnesota Waters president Richard Fowler stated.
"These will include loss of water quality and recreational use of our lakes that can hurt the state's $9.2 billion tourism industry and potentially devalue the tax contribution of $250 billion of Minnesota lakeshore property."
Pawlenty didn't respond immediately, but approved a DNR request for an extra $975,000 for all invasive species, from zebra mussels to Eurasian watermilfoil. Legislators, however, have trimmed that amount, with $550,000 remaining in the Senate's supplemental budget bill and $261,000 in the House bill.
Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, attributed the cut to other issues competing for the same limited pool of money. He said his Environment and Natural Resources Committee had hoped to learn more about zebra mussels this year, but has yet to schedule a hearing.
"We still might," Hackbarth said.
Meanwhile, Jay Rendall, the DNR's invasive species program coordinator, said his program is doing all it can with its nearly $2 million annual budget.
"If we were to inspect all accesses on infested waters, and we did it 24/7, that would be $22.6 million a year," Rendall said. "The reality is we can't afford to check every boat everywhere, every time. If someone told us to do it and a wand gave us the resources, we would."
Since zebra mussels reached the eastern edge of Minnesota in the early 1990s, the DNR has emphasized an education and awareness program to get boaters to clean boats and trailers to avoid moving invasive species from one lake to another.
By and large, it's worked.
During that period, zebra mussels have spread slower in Minnesota than in such states as Wisconsin and Michigan. There, they've gotten into hundreds of lakes.
In many of those lakes, including Michigan and Erie, zebra mussels have stripped the water of plankton, allowing sunlight-dependent plants and organisms to flourish and, eventually, to rot on beaches. Dead zebra mussels, meanwhile, have washed ashore in vast numbers.
In Minnesota, they've slowly moved into the St. Croix and Zumbro rivers, Lake Superior, inland lakes Ossawinnamakee, Mille Lacs and Zumbro, and in a Brainerd-area bay of the Mississippi.
With more infested waters, Rendall conceded he also is concerned this year. "I don't know if critical is the word, but the picture has definitely changed," he said, referring to the discoveries last summer of four zebra mussels in Mille Lacs and others in the Mississippi River bay near Brainerd.
With an estimated 500,000 boats using Mille Lacs every year and more than 100 public accesses on the Mississippi between Brainerd and the Twin Cities, boats leaving those areas could be in any of thousands of lakes within a couple of hours.
One of them is Lake Minnetonka, a popular recreational spot on the western edge of the Twin Cities. With more than two dozen public and private landings and an estimated 200,000 boats using it each year, the lake is extremely vulnerable, Osgood said.
A more aggressive effort is needed and quickly, said Osgood, as he watched anglers launch boats from the Grays Bay public landing one recent day.
"Without it, we are standing there waiting," he said. "We don't think fate is a good game plan."
So far, the state has not followed any recommendations to increase inspections, charge fees and reduce access points on Lake Minnetonka. The DNR's longtime position has been that no one should be denied access to state waters and that public accesses are free.
As for closing accesses on the lake, Rendall said the DNR only owns two public landings and has no control over two dozen other public and private ones.
"Even if we did want to do it, we don't have any authority," he said.
The fee approach also could be a tough sell with the public.
Saying people have to take personal responsibility for cleaning their boats, Dale Brekke of Plymouth said he probably wouldn't support an extra fee for inspections. Still, he conceded some boaters need that oversight.
"Some people are pigs," he said, pausing before backing his boat into Lake Minnetonka. "And I don't know how you get them to do it."
Paula West, public policy director of Minnesota Waters, contended the DNR simply isn't doing all it can to stop zebra mussels from spreading.
"The DNR doesn't seem to be taking this as seriously as we do," West said. Rendall said that simply isn't true.
Even though the state's main emphasis is education, he said the state took several actions at Ossawinnamakee and will take similar steps at Mille Lacs this year.
It removed the four mussels it found there last year and did a detailed underwater survey that found no others. This year, it plans to increase inspections by 20 percent, and ratchet up a regional public awareness campaign using newspapers, radio, television and billboards.
"At the ones already infested, they are not giving us enough credit for what we have done," Rendall said. "But I think (Osgood) is right. We aren't equipped to make the risk zero or close to zero. Our objective is to reduce the risk, to minimize the spread."
Other invasive species also must be controlled, he emphasized.
"Sometimes, people don't understand that," Rendall said.
Recently, for example, authorities announced another disruptive aquatic invader, the New Zealand mud snail had been found in the Duluth-Superior Harbor.
None of those arguments has dissuaded Osgood, who said that unless more resources are applied, the future is bleak.
"The current plan will not contain this animal from spreading in Minnesota," he said. "Unlike other invasive species, once these get in a lake or river, there's nothing you can do."