Lakes country reacts, adapts to growing zebra mussel threat
With zebra mussels discovered in Lake Melissa just south of here last week, officials say boat inspections across lakes country will be stepped up this summer.
But for some who live and work here, there’s a certain feeling of resignation, like the battle against the pesky mollusk is already lost.
“I think we’re going to just adapt,” said Scott Sonstegard, a shop owner in Detroit Lakes. “Everybody’s very familiar with the zebra mussels, and they’re going to probably be everywhere because of the movement of the boats, so it’s just something we’re going to have to accept.”
Zebra mussels are already present in several lakes in Otter Tail County, but Lake Melissa is the first lake in Becker County where the invasive mussels have been confirmed, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
County and state officials aren’t yet ready to throw in the towel. Inspections and DNR checkpoints on and around Lake Melissa will be increased this year. That includes Detroit Lake, the crown jewel of the region.
“We want to stop or slow this as much as we can to any other water body, not only Big Detroit but any other associated water bodies,” said Lt. Phil Seefeldt, of the Minnesota DNR.
Lake Melissa is downstream of Detroit Lake, which officials say is good news. Zebra mussels don’t travel upstream, so humans will have to taxi the pest into nearby Detroit Lake or Lake Sallie.
A zebra mussel has been found in Pickerel Lake near Cotton Lake in central Becker County, and the DNR plans to declare the lake infested today.
Zebra mussels are already confirmed or suspected in lakes downstream of Melissa, including Pelican, Little Pelican, Buck and Mill Pond.
“It was pretty disheartening to see that the efforts to keep it out of here were unsuccessful,” said Ken Raschke, 68, whose family has owned property on Lake Melissa since 1976. “We just have to hope at some point they find a way to deal with them.”
Minnesota has been battling the spread of zebra mussels and other aquatic invasive species for years.
But in Becker and Otter Tail counties, a region with countless lakes, officials admit it can feel like an uphill battle.
“We have so many lakes and limited people,” said Otter Tail County Sheriff Brian Schlueter.
That’s why the DNR and county officials rely on volunteers to educate neighbors and keep eyes peeled for lawbreaking.
Becker County last year started a lakeshore ambassador program, with volunteers on two lakes. This year, that program has been increased to seven lakes and counting, said Steve Skoog, Becker County’s environmental services administrator.
The Sheriff’s Department also has three deputies committed to aquatic invasive species investigation this year, up from two last year, Skoog said.
The DNR has an estimated 25 inspectors in northwestern Minnesota, and about half of them are stationed in Otter Tail and Becker counties, said Barry Stratton, a DNR ecological and water resources district manager.
Zebra mussels multiply quickly – an adult female produces 30,000 to 1 million eggs per year and about 2 percent survive – and filter up to a quart of water a day as they feast on plankton and algae.
That makes for clearer lake water, but it robs food from smaller fish, disrupting the lake’s entire food chain, DNR officials say.
Clear water could be a plus for lake homeowners, but it ultimately can affect which plant life is able to survive in the lake. Light will penetrate deeper into a clearer lake, and water temperatures warm.
“It’s just a total change of the ecology,” Stratton said.
The mussels can also clog pumps and machinery, and their sharp edges on the beach can slice up feet.
Adult zebra mussels often move into new bodies of water by attaching to the hulls of boats or docks, but the mussels in their veliger, or larval, stage are microscopic and float freely in pools of water, making them impossible to detect by human eye.
That’s why draining and drying boats and equipment, as required by law, is so critical to stopping the spread, said Mark Ranweiler, a DNR assistant aquatic invasive species specialist.
When the mussels make their way into a lake, they’re often there for good, Ranweiler said. They can live 20 or 30 feet below the surface, making eradication impossible.
“There’s no golden ticket at this point for zebra mussels,” he said.
Becker County Sheriff Kelly Shannon said the public has been “overwhelmingly supportive” of the effort to stop the spread of invasive species. Still, he hopes a recent influx of state money means more inspectors can be hired soon.
“Unfortunately, it’s a battle that’s going to be continuing on,” Shannon said.
Now that the battle has extended to Lake Melissa, Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk said he doesn’t think tourism will be immediately affected.
Sonstegard agreed, saying the joy of being out in the sun and the fresh air won’t be diminished by a few zebra mussels.
“The lake air, the sunsets, and having the kids out on the boat, tubing, none of that is going to be affected by the zebra mussels,” he said.
Raschke just hopes the mussels won’t also attack his property values. On a rainy Tuesday morning, he stood outside his blue lake home with a bright pink doorframe, debating with his wife, Barbara.
The way Ken sees it, people will be more willing to buy property on a lake where it’s not a problem.
“I’m not happy about it,” he said. “It screws up the lake.”
Barbara quickly chimed in that she isn’t so certain that it devalues property.
“I don’t know,” Ken said, eventually coming to some agreement with his wife. “A lot of people want to be here because it’s a good place to be.”