Minnesota’s battle against aquatic invasive species is going to be a lot more obvious starting this summer as counties and local lake associations join the fight to keep zebra mussels and other unwanted critters out of their lakes.

The move is part of an unprecedented effort to funnel money into local agencies, nonprofits and groups to not just educate the public but also take proactive steps to slow the spread of invasives.

Local efforts are awash in cash this year after the 2014 Minnesota Legislature set aside $10 million for counties to spend to combat invasive species spread. Another $4 million is available from the Outdoor Heritage Fund through the nonprofit Initiative Foundation in grants.

That money will go to increased education campaigns - from Facebook and Twitter campaigns to billboards - as well as increased inspections at boat landings and even high-heat, high-pressure decontamination stations that some counties already are buying with the state money.

“What we’re seeing in Minnesota going into this year is really unprecedented anywhere in the U.S. There’s never been an effort of this magnitude to bring the battle against aquatic invasive species to such a local level,” said Don Hickman, vice president for community and economic development for the Minnesota-based Initiative Foundation.

Boaters will be asked even more often to make sure they are moving no water, weeds or living organisms from one lake or river to another. In many cases, they’ll have to consent to have their boat decontaminated or risk not being allowed on certain waterways.

The battle is expensive, but nowhere near the financial and environmental cost once invasive species take hold in Minnesota lakes. The invading species often kill off native species, disrupt the food chain and destroy habitat. Many of these invaders dampen recreation experiences and some can stop them altogether.

“Lake Minnetonka (west of Minneapolis) spent $600,000 last year just to remove Eurasian water milofil,’’ Hickman said. “That’s one species in one lake for one year ... and it’s just controlling it so they can get their boats through the lake. They aren’t going to get rid of it.”

With Minnesotans engaged to protect their favorite lake, Hickman said there’s hope that what’s already spread will at least be slowed, if not stopped, protecting not just the ecological value of Minnesota waters but also economic value.

“We have a $12 billion tourism industry in this state that depends in large part on our waters, and that’s at risk here,” he added. “We can’t afford to lose this battle.”

Big bucks go local

The St. Louis County Board in October voted to accept $306,356 from the state for 2014 and another $681,000 annually starting this year. County officials have contracted with the University of Minnesota’s Duluth-based Sea Grant program to develop a plan and get money to local groups in time for the upcoming summer boating season.

The state is doling the money out based on the number of public landings and trailer parking spaces each county has. Out of 87 counties, St. Louis County has the second-highest number of boat launch sites at 166 and the highest number of watercraft trailer parking spaces at 1,173.

Organizations eligible for the state money include joint powers boards, local governments, nonprofit organizations, soil and water conservation districts, watershed districts and lake associations. County and Sea Grant staff have set two public meetings, hoping members of those groups will get involved and submit proposals for specific actions that will battle aquatic invasive species.

In some cases, that’s already happening. The White Iron Chain of Lakes Association, through the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District, received a $50,000 grant through the Initiative Foundation to remove rusty crayfish. The aggressive, foreign invader is known to disrupt native crayfish and destroy vegetation, especially wild rice beds.

The trapping effort involves not just lake residents but also kids from nearby Camp Voyageur and Voyageur Outward Bound as well as students from Vermilion Community College who will tend the traps.

While similar intensive trapping efforts have worked in Wisconsin, this is the first time it’s been tried on a Minnesota river system. It’s hoped the effort will keep the big crayfish from infesting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“The money we have is aimed at innovative, maybe even experimental solutions. It’s trying to encourage entrepreneurial responses to AIS,” the Initiative Foundation’s Hickman said. “This White Iron effort on rusty crayfish is really one of the first targeted attempts to go in and reduce their number. … If it works, it could be revolutionary.”

Richard Sve, Lake County commissioner, was among the 400 county and local officials who attended a statewide summit on AIS last week in St. Cloud. His county received $75,000 last year and will get $165,000 annually from the state to battle AIS.

“We’re going to get people together in the near future and develop our plan. We want to know the science, the options, the cost and the ramifications of what we’re doing before we start spending money,” Sve said. “We’re pretty lucky that most of our lakes don’t have an infestation problem. And we want to keep it that way.”

Sve, who also heads the Association of Minnesota Counties environment and natural resources committee, said it’s rare for Minnesota lawmakers to hand over state money to local governments without even being asked.

“It makes sense to get this money down to the local level where it can do the most good,” Sve said.

State, Sea Grant stay engaged

State officials are quick to note that they are not abdicating their AIS responsibilities. The Department of Natural Resources will continue its education, inspection and law enforcement efforts - including increased highway checkpoints with mandatory boat and trailer inspections. The state also is using portable decontamination units.

The University of Minnesota’s new Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center will continue to work toward big picture solutions to major invasions, such as Asian carp. And Sea Grant will continue with its research and education efforts.

“But it’s clear the DNR and Sea Grant, and even federal agencies, can’t do this on their own. It’s going to take people at the local level to take action,’’ Hickman said. “‘This crisis is really about controlling human behavior, the human vector, because that’s how most of this stuff moves around.”

There are now 692 waterways (lakes or stretches of river) in Minnesota officially infested by at least one invasive species. The invaders are a mix of plants and critters, from purple loostrife and Eurasian water milofil to zebra mussels, faucet snails, goby, spiny waterfleas and New Zealand mudsnails.

And more species are knocking on Minnesota’s door. Quagga mussels, the larger cousin of zebra mussels, already are found in the Twin Ports harbor. Asian carp are slowly moving up the Mississippi River. Hydrilla, a lake-choking foreign weed, has moved as far north as Indiana.

But there’s some good news to report after years of woe, including a nearly nine-year stretch since any new foreign species has been confirmed in the Great Lakes. After seeing a string of new invasive species nearly annually, the bloody red shrimp was the last new confirmed Great Lakes invader back in 2006.

Since oceangoing ships have been rinsing their ballast tanks with salt water before entering the U.S., it appears the influx of species that can survive in freshwater has slowed.

Within Minnesota, despite huge infestations in the Twin Ports harbor and Mississippi River, and despite hundreds of thousands of boats trailered across the state each year, zebra mussels have been moved by people into only 30 of the state’s more than 11,000 lakes. More lakes are considered infested because they are connected to waters with zebra mussels. But it’s clear that it’s not just luck that has kept most lakes uninfested.

“There’s some pretty clear indications that our efforts are making a difference. The pace of the spread for many of these species has slowed,” said Doug Jensen, aquatic invasive species program coordinator for the Sea Grant program.

The education effort has moved beyond boat owners and onto scuba divers, aquarium owners, duck hunters and others - all of whom have the potential to move invasives.

Jensen noted that more people, some 94 percent in one survey, say they are aware of the dangers of AIS and are willing to take action to stop their spread - including making sure their boats are dry or cleaned, inside and out, between lakes. And more people are following state laws, like Minnesota’s infamous “pull the plug’’ law that requires boaters to remove their drain plug whenever trailering their boats.That’s an effort to make sure boats fully drain between waterways.

DNR enforcement originally found more than 1-in-3 boaters violating that law. Last year that violation rate dropped to just 16 percent, Jensen noted. Those who get caught with a plug in their plug in a boat on the road pay a $100 fine.

“There’s been some success with national and state research, education, regulation and enforcement. Enforcement is an important component,’’ Jensen said. “Now we’re taking the next step. … Minnesota is really taking the lead by making this money available at the local level where, I think, it’s really going to do some good.”

St. Louis County AIS meetings set

Anyone interested in helping to slow the spread of aquatic invasive species in St. Louis County waters is invited to attend two public meetings planned in coming weeks.

The county has contracted with University of Minnesota Sea Grant to develop a plan to funnel state money to local organizations to help combat invasive species at the local level. Sea Grant is expected to develop a countywide plan and then accept proposals from local groups for specific projects to combat AIS.

The meetings are set for Feb. 3, from 12:30-4:30 p.m. in the city/county law enforcement center training room at 2030 Arlington Ave., Duluth, and Feb. 4 from 12:30-4:30 p.m. at the Mountain Iron Community Center, 8586 Enterprise Drive. RSVP by Thursday to Marte Kitson at mkitson@d.umn.edu or (218) 726-8305.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

New state law requires online course, sticker

Beginning July 1 all boat trailers in Minnesota will be required by law to have a sticker displayed that shows the owner has taken a course on preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species.

The course and sticker regulation will apply to residents and nonresidents alike. Nonresidents unable to take the course can get a temporary pass if they register their boat.

The law, which passed with little notice in 2011, is under review this year, but unless lawmakers make changes, the course and sticker will be required.

The course involves 10-12 mandatory questions and takes less than 20 minutes to complete online. Watercraft trailer owners will be required to retake the course and get a new decal every three years. The course is expected to cost $2 or less.

The course will be available online at trailers.mndnr.gov starting Jan. 31 or through a home study course. Call (651) 351-2000 to request a paper copy or ask questions.

DNR offers AIS training for marinas, resorts

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will offer a series of lake service provider training sessions to help curb the spread of aquatic invasive species beginning with a session in Grand Rapids from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday at Timberlake Lodge, 144 S.E. 17th St.

The courses are mandatory for anyone who works in business such as resorts, marinas, outfitters, etc., that move boats, trailers, docks or other equipment in and out of Minnesota lakes and rivers. Other sessions - all from 1-4 p.m. - are set for Feb.3 at the Mountain Iron Community Center, March 11 at Vermilion Community College in Ely, April 28 at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency office in Duluth and April 30 in Schaap Community Center in Grand Marais. For more information, email lsp.dnr@state.mn.us.