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Lake advocates unhappy with county board

Zebra mussels reared their ugly little heads at the Becker County Board meeting Tuesday.

Members of the county’s aquatic invasive species task force sparred with county officials over whether the county is doing enough to keep zebra mussels and other aquatic invaders out of county lakes.

Specifically, they want the county to join neighboring counties in signing a boat inspection "delegation agreement" with the DNR. That would free up state funding and enable the DNR to work with Becker County in other ways.

Becker County officials say they aren't alone in refusing to sign the agreement for liability reasons, but say the county is still doing a lot: It has hired a seasonal AIS specialist, Scott Haugen, who will begin work this week.

He will develop an AIS rapid response plan, annual AIS management plan, assess lakes susceptible to AIS, prioritize enforcement, develop a lake rating and risk rating system, and identify new funding sources.

 The county board also agreed to hire two part-time seasonal deputies who will specialize in AIS enforcement, traveling from lake to lake to look for AIS scofflaws.

Environmental Services Director Steve Skoog is also devoting a lot of time to the AIS issue, and is spearheading the county’s response.

But the county board has balked at signing a delegation agreement with the DNR for a boat inspection program.

New language inserted by the Legislature this year at the DNR’s request would require the county to “assume all legal, financial and administrative responsibilities for inspection programs on some or all public waters within their jurisdictions.”

Becker County officials fear that leaves the county open to legal problems, and refuse to sign it.

But the DNR will now only work with local government units like counties, cities and townships on AIS inspections. It will no longer work with lake associations, so that leaves paid inspection programs organized by lake associations high and dry, unable to operate, said Terry Kalil, of the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations.

She said there are local lake associations that have funding to pay watercraft inspectors, and have people in place to do that, but are stymied because the county has not signed the delegation agreement with the DNR.

The volunteer inspection program has proved unworkable and is essentially nonexistent in Becker County, she said.

Critics say the county is putting its resources in the wrong area, is actually in worse shape than last year, and is falling behind neighboring counties.

Skoog looked into what neighboring counties are doing on the AIS front. Here’s what he found:

The Hubbard County Board has signed the delegation agreement and several years ago delegated administration and enforcement to the soil and water conservation district, which started boat inspections in 2005.

Last year, the Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District had 13 inspectors working on 15 lakes.

This year, there will be 20 Level 2 inspectors working on 19 lakes. The HCSWCD has designated $130,000 for the inspection program. The county pays $35,000 and the rest comes from lake associations, townships and cities, along with a $7,500 DNR grant. Inspectors are paid $10 an hour. Hubbard County plans to get a stationary decontamination unit this year.

Otter Tail County has signed the delegation agreement with the DNR and has allocated $80,000 to the AIS fight this year. The land and resource department is in charge. Otter Tail County will hire four seasonal part-time inspectors this year to cover 134 public lake accesses.

Some lakeshore associations have volunteer inspectors, one lake improvement district has a paid inspector. The county coordinates with the DNR, which has inspectors on contaminated lakes.

Clay County has put only a minimal effort into the AIS fight.

Becker County Administrator Jack Ingstad said in an e-mail to local media that the county is exploring options.

“We will keep working towards finding a solution to allow for paid inspectors,” he said.  “I have a call into Ann Pierce at the DNR to ask her to attend our next meeting (to discuss the delegation agreement). A solution is there, we need to just keep searching for it!”