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County asked to lead Big turnout at zebra mussel gathering

There is a lot of concern out there about zebra mussels invading area lakes -- if the turnout at the Becker County Board meeting Tuesday is any indication.

An estimated 75 people showed up to learn about aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels and hear a plan of action for keeping them out of Becker County lakes.

At risk could be the county's tourism, property values and way of life, said Terry Kalil, the vice president of the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations (COLA).

"There's a bullseye on Becker County," Kalil told county commissioners.

"It's time for Becker County to step up, get involved, and commit to this project ... our recommendation is that you form a task force focused on taking action -- not a study group or an advisory committee," she said.

The county needs to focus on implementing a plan of action "before open water in 2012," she added. "If we want to protect tourism, property values and our way of life here in Becker County, we need to take action now."

That means getting public input from everyone concerned about the lakes, from anglers, to the business community, to water skiers to property owners.

The next step is to secure funding, then set priorities for action, then approve a plan and finally implement the plan, she said.

"We can't set dates on these goals, because we don't know what the level of commitment is from Becker County," Kalil said. "Once we know that, we can proceed with a timetable."

COLA is a volunteer organization and doesn't have the resources or clout to lead this fight; other agencies, like watershed districts, are already stretched thin, she added.

"We need some help," Kalil said. "There are no second chances. There are no do-overs. If you get zebra mussels, there is no chance of eradication. We need to do it right and we need to do it right now."

She was the closer for the presentation, which was opened by Moriya Rufer, director of client services at RMB Environmental Laboratories, Inc., and followed by Tera Guetter, administrator of the Pelican River Watershed District.

The three women presented a plan of action to commissioners to help the county be "ready for open water" in the spring.

The idea is to use education and enforcement to prevent the spread of zebra mussels, which were recently found in Rose Lake near Vergas and were discovered in Pelican Lake in 2009. They have since moved down the Pelican River to infest Lake Lizzie and now Prairie Lake, Rufer said.

Zebra mussels float downstream as larvae and will infest all the downstream lakes on a river chain.

The Minnesota DNR says female zebra mussels can produce 100,000 to 500,000 eggs per year. These develop into microscopic, free-living larvae (called veligers) that begin to form shells. After two-three weeks, the microscopic veligers start to settle and attach to any firm surface using "byssal threads," which make them very hard to remove.

Zebra mussels are about the size of a quarter and filter plankton from the surrounding water.

To do this, they open their shells, which are very sharp, and can cut people. They grow on rocks, swim rafts and ladders and can cause cuts and scrapes.

Anglers lose tackle as the shells can cut fishing line. Zebra mussels also attach to native mussels, killing them.

Their filtering can increase water clarity, which causes more aquatic vegetation to grow at deeper depths and more dense stands.

If a lake has high numbers of mussels over large areas, this filter feeding impacts the food chain, reducing food for larval fish.

In other words, they can change the ecosystem of a lake.

"When we put these controls in place, we not only want to prevent the zebra mussels, which are really close by, but also other invasive species as well," like Asian carp, Quagga mussels and serious fish disease, Rufer said.

Local officials are fighting back against the zebra mussels with new educational and warning signs at public lake accesses, and informational campaigns, Guetter said.

A very successful legislative summit on invasive species was held in Detroit Lakes in January and another one is planned for January 2012.

Lake association volunteers from Detroit, Floyd, Long and Sallie-Melissa helped with hundreds of watercraft inspections over the summer, helping teach boat operators how to avoid accidentally transporting invasive species from lake to lake.

"This is not about keeping people off the lake, not even close," Guetter said.

"It's about educating people to do the right thing," like teaching people to wash their hands frequently during flu season to avoid passing on germs, she added.

Becker County is ahead of the curve in many ways when it comes to battling invasive aquatics, Guetter said.

Lake service providers -- businesses that install and remove docks and boat lifts -- are required to train employees in how to avoid spreading invasives like zebra mussels. Of the 104 lake service providers trained in Minnesota so far, 43 are from Becker County.

"That's because we got the word out," through letters to providers and via the media, Guetter said.

Some lake service providers keep an entirely separate set of equipment for use only in zebra mussel-infested lakes.

"When I say Becker County is leading the way on this, I do mean it," she said.

County commissioners took no immediate action Tuesday, but Commissioner Don Skarie said that's because it was the first time they had seen the proposal, and needed time to consider it. He expects it to return for board action next month.