A Wright County pilot project poised to begin Minnesota’s first full season of mandatory boat inspections is off to a rocky start amid angry criticism from anglers and only tepid acceptance from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Limited for now to three lakes around Annandale, the Wright Regional Inspection Program is trying to overcome early dissatisfaction by users who voiced bewilderment and said they were inconvenienced during the program’s three-week trial in October.
Moreover, founders of the project continue to be frustrated by accusations that the new system is a ruse by lakeshore property owners to discourage public use of lakes.
The drama is being watched closely around the state by other local units of government yearning to thwart aquatic invasive species (AIS) in ways that are both cheaper and more comprehensive than traditional, intermittent at-the-ramp examinations established by the DNR in 1995.
“Will it be the wave of the future? I can’t answer that,’’ said Heidi Wolf, invasive species program supervisor at the DNR. “But we are excited to see what comes from the program.’’
Wolf attended last week’s Aquatic Invaders Summit in Brooklyn Center, an annual conference sponsored by Minnesota Lakes & Rivers Advocates, a nonprofit coalition of lake associations, lakeshore owners and environmental groups. Jeff Forester, the group’s executive director, has said the DNR isn’t doing enough to stop AIS.
“Locals are now stepping in to do their job,’’ Forester said.
This year’s conference included a presentation about the pilot project. Team members told the audience they are striving to prove that mandatory, regionalized AIS inspections are affordable and logistically feasible every day of the boating season, from dawn until dusk.
The five-year pilot program is funded by a $623,000 Initiative Foundations grant and $20,000 a year, combined, from property owners on Lake Sylvia, Lake John and Pleasant Lake. It’s the first mandatory inspection program to flow from a 2012 state law that granted authority for local scrutiny of AIS.
Wright County’s ordinance mandates that visitors to any of the three lakes in the pilot program first stop at a boulevard location in Annandale to receive free AIS inspection of their watercraft. Decontamination equipment is on site when needed or requested.
Boats and trailers that pass inspection are marked with a red zip-tie. The approved users also receive a receipt to place on their vehicle’s dashboard. At the public landing of their choice, they break the zip-tie and leave it in a dropbox. A rover from the inspection team patrols the parking lots to collect the zip-ties and check dashboards for receipts. Noncompliance is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.
Alicia O’Hare of the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District said the system is designed to conduct more inspections with fewer inspectors. It dispenses with a lot of idle time that at-the-ramp inspectors experience at their isolated locations when there’s no traffic.
O’Hare said the trick is to staff the centralized inspection site with few enough people to make it financially efficient but also expedient for users. During periods of high use, the pilot program plans to use four inspectors.
Chris Hector, president of the Greater Lake Sylvia Association, said founders of the program believe it can affordably accommodate all boaters without unreasonable wait times. With 100 percent compliance, no boats or lake equipment would enter the lakes without being inspected for zebra mussels, Eurasian milfoil or other invasives.
“We don’t believe we are limiting access,’’ Hector said.
He said he was disappointed with the DNR last year for taking several months to approve the pilot project. Project organizers submitted their plan to the agency June 28. Final approval came in September. That left only three weeks in October for the inspection station to run.
Wolf said the DNR struggled with the fact that pilot project lakes already are contaminated by AIS. Sylvia, the largest, has zebra mussels, milfoil and starry stonewort, a super-algae. Yet the project doesn’t inspect boats that leave the lake.
Another DNR concern, Wolf said, is that the pilot project failed to record survey inspection times or other data from half of its October inspections.
At the County Board meeting in September when DNR announced its approval, assistant DNR commissioner Bob Meier said the agency is “not enamored with the project.”
Meier informed the county commissioners that they are “taking on all the risks and requirements of the plan.’’ He also said the DNR will continue to evaluate the project, which the agency has not yet approved for 2018. Hector said project organizers want confirmation soon in order to hire staff.
O’Hare said the 2012 law granting local AIS authority doesn’t apply to exit inspections. Besides, she said, the state already requires such inspections before a boater leaves a public landing.
Public support for the pilot project has been overwhelming, founders say. But negative feedback dominated surveys completed by users last October. Most respondents “strongly disagreed’’ that the location was convenient, or that the experience was easy or that the stop took “a reasonable amount of time.”
Only 11 people completed the surveys. One responder wrote: “This inspection program is going to do nothing but privatize three lakes in the Annandale area.’’ Another wrote: “It’s way too inefficient. But maybe that’s what the lake association wants?’’
Forester recently wrote an opinion piece to rebut such “hysteria.”
“Lake associations, made up largely of local civic leaders, do not want to ‘privatize’ or close access to the lakes for the simple reason that closing lakes does not serve their self-interest,” he wrote.
Wolf said she was to meet Friday with DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr about the pilot project, but she had nothing to report as of late Friday afternoon.