Local approach to fighting aquatic species best bet for Minnesota lakes, $12B tourism economy

Last summer a friend came up to Lake Vermilion to fish. Sitting in the boat, he asked about zebra mussels, one of several aquatic invasive species challenging Minnesota lakes, livelihoods and environmental policies. In 2009, there were only 30 lakes infested with zebra mussels. In the summer of 2014, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources expanded the zebra mussel-infested waters list to more than 200, including two of our most high-profile recreational water bodies, Lake Mille Lacs and Lake Minnetonka. When told about AIS spreading to more than 200 lakes, he quipped, “Maybe you should change your state motto to, ‘Land of 9,800 lakes.’ ”

Though kidding, his statement rings true: Ice out and the fishing opener are almost official holidays here. About one in five Minnesotans has a lake cabin or home in their family. Aquatic invasive species are not compatible with this way of life. They threaten tourism and its 118,000 related jobs, $3.4 billion in related wages and salaries, and $815 million in state and local tax revenue.

Most species are not spread by waterfowl, and they don’t crawl from one lake to the next. People are moving these plants and animals from one place to another. It’s that simple. And widespread. Last summer, the DNR reported a violation rate of about 20 percent at their select roadside inspection stations. If every boat owner transported totally cleaned, fully drained and completely dried boats and other water related equipment, there would be no new infestations.

But this season, there’s a new model to fight invasive species. In its wisdom, Minnesota’s 2014 Legislature embarked on a radical new program of putting $10 million in annual funding at the local level. That makes sense: Aquatic invasive species costs are local costs: lost property tax revenue, lost tourism, increased utilities costs. Funding the battle at the grass-roots will have the greatest impact, rather than feeding more money into a state agency like the DNR to push it top-down into communities.

This year — despite failed efforts to turn back this funding in the 2015 Legislature — we have the financial resources to address AIS problems where they occur. And the residual effects from that sea change are inspiring, not only for the health of our lakes and our recreational economy, but the health of our democracy, too.

An area of Christmas Lake was treated for zebra mussels with a product called Zequanox last September in Shorewood.


(An area of Christmas Lake was treated for zebra mussels with a product called Zequanox last September in Shorewood.)

    In this broader discussion, naysayers have blindly underestimated Minnesota’s biggest unused asset in the battle, the hundreds of thousands of lake lovers in the state. Research by Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates and Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations showed that local private investment in AIS work nearly matches the DNR’s $3.6 million annual invasive species budget. This private investment in public waters has been climbing dramatically, as have the thousands of hours of volunteer work. Add those volunteer hours to the new $10 million allocation and Minnesotans’ love of lakes is now matched by local funding to leverage this passion.

    DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr recently used his bully pulpit to proclaim that limiting the spread of the aquatic invaders indeed requires personal responsibility — and a personal change in behavior by the general public.

    Success now will require a basic change in belief and behavior within academia, resource management agencies like the DNR, and nonprofits, too. The hundreds of thousands of lake lovers in Minnesota previously looked to the DNR to protect lakes. But that agency, as a system, was not set up to deal with adaptive problems like AIS effectively: The systems within the DNR function primarily to protect only the general elements of lakes like fishing, public access and waterfowl.

    DNR funding follows these resources and so do their programs. The relationship between a public looking to protect lakes in their entirety, and all the ecological services connected to those lakes, the tax base, as a source of drinking water, the way of life that lakes support, is growing increasingly strained. Every time a lake becomes infested with zebra mussels, public impatience increases. This same tension is evident in other areas of natural resource management, as well.

    Now local funding to fight aquatic invasive species means we Minnesotans will have to practice the core ideal of democracy. Citizens will have to take the responsibility to be part of the solution and resist the old model where governance is seen as a service that is purchased with taxes or license fees. Local government units and local retailers, resort owners and private cabin owners will have to partner in real, measurable ways. That can be a tough sell and runs counter to the established cultures within many agencies, nonprofits and local governments.

    The local model to fight AIS readily has the potential to empower engaged citizens. That idea is an exciting one whose time has come in Minnesota’s efforts to protect our many waters. And we won’t have to change our “Land of 10,000 Lakes” credo to do it.

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