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Too little done about invasive species

Minnesota's lakes are under attack.

Aquatic invasive species such as Eurasian watermilfoil, curly-leaf pondweed, zebra mussels and others are inexorably advancing, carried from lake to lake on boats and trailers.

They clog creeks, choke shallows, foul intakes, slime beaches, destroy native fish and plant ecosystems, and cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in lost recreation, mitigation and eroded property values yearly.

We are not just losing this war -- we are not even fighting.

After Eurasian watermilfoil was first discovered in Lake Minnetonka in 1987, the spread to other lakes was slow.

Since 2002, however, milfoil spread has accelerated to about five times the rate observed in Wisconsin. And now a new and far more destructive species has invaded Minnesota.

Last fall, zebra mussels were discovered in Gull Lake and Lake Minnetonka, adding them to the list of "superspreader" waters, which also includes Mille Lacs, Pelican Lake in Otter Tail County, Prior Lake, the Alexandria Chain and the Mississippi River.

These waters host hundreds of thousands of transient boats yearly, any one of which could carry this devastating invasive into a new lake or river. Without action, zebra mussel infestation will be epidemic.

Some say the problem is too hard to contain, that it isn't big or that we can't afford to address it. We disagree. With adequate will and resources, aquatic invasive species can be contained.

State spending for all AIS efforts, including education and enforcement, hovers at about $4 million annually, with no coordinated plan between agencies and no reliable funding. Law enforcement is inadequately trained in AIS issues. Penalties are woefully lax.

A deer poacher, who costs the state little, faces fines in the thousands of dollars, loss of gun, loss of vehicle and possible jail time. But if he transports zebra mussels, which potentially costs billions, he faces a mere wrist slap.

Across the state, lake associations are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of private money to manage public waters for the public's benefit.

Paula West, a board director with the Crow Wing Lakes and Rivers Alliance and member of the Mission Lakes Association in the Brainerd area, said that Mission Lakes has spent more than $225,000 to manage curly-leaf pondweed and more than $30,000 on Eurasian watermilfoil.

Managing these waters is supposed to be the responsibility of the state Department of Natural Resources. Lake associations are willing to help but should not bear the burden of AIS management.

State funding, enforcement, penalties and coordination are all inadequate. Minnesota's lakes, rivers and streams are our heritage. AIS impacts are growing at an alarming rate and are irreversible.

Our response thus far has not been appropriate to the crisis.

Models for funding and containing AIS exist. Other states are having success. Minnesota doesn't lack solutions; it lacks commitment.

Happily, a tide of public activism and concern is rising.

That Minnesotans voted overwhelmingly to raise taxes to protect the state's waters is a clear indication of strong public commitment. Sportsmen, environmentalists, property owners, public works managers and businesses all have vital self-interest in healthy lakes and rivers.

Around this interest, coalitions are forming.

In a Minnesota Seasonal Recreational Property Owners (MSRPO) statewide survey of more than 1,800 cabin owners, the threat of AIS and water quality emerged as top concerns.

Barbara Halbakken Fischburg, a member of the Tri-County AIS Legislative Summit to be held Saturday in Detroit Lakes, explained: "At the League of Women Voters candidate forums, the issue of aquatic invasives and the impact on our county's economy was ... second only to budget topics."

This year MSRPO, citizens, lake associations, businesses and other groups will be pursuing strong AIS legislation. All who love our lakes should join this chorus.

The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes must take a stand and win this war.

Now is the time to urge legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton to commit to aggressive AIS containment and mitigation.

If we don't act now, we will soon look back and tell our children about a time when it was possible to swim in Minnesota's lakes without getting tangled in milfoil or lacerated by zebra mussel shells.

(Jeff Forester is executive director of the Minnesota Seasonal Recreational Property Owners Association. The article was signed by more than 20 others, including the heads of numerous Minnesota lake associations.)