Wright County approves regional inspection plan for invasive species

By John Holler
Contributing Writer

For those who enjoy Minnesota’s 10,000-plus lakes, the acronym AIS has become far too familiar. AIS – Aquatic Invasive Species — have contaminated many Minnesota lakes.

From zebra mussels to Eurasian milfoil to the newest and most devastating invasive species, starry stonewort, have infested waters. Lake Koronis in Paynesville has become the example of how a lake can undergo a complete infestation.

Without the state taking action to attempt to create an organized program to combat the AIS epidemic, local governments have been forced to combat infestations within their boundaries largely on their own. At the Sept. 19 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, the county voted to move forward with a pilot project funded through the Initiative Foundation.

The pilot project will require entry inspections prior to launch water-related equipment at four accesses on three lakes near the City of Annandale — Lake Sylvia, Lake John and Lake Pleasant. Two of the lakes (Sylvia and John) are considered at the highest risk of AIS infestation, but Lake Pleasant has recently had Eurasian milfoil discovered.

The project, which will start this fall and continue through next year, is a program that has been locally generated, not through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The project will be located around Annandale, but will be watched closely throughout Minnesota in areas with similar concern about preventing lake contamination.

“Other areas and counties around the state are watching this because they feel this is necessary thing,” Commissioner Christine Husom said. “If it were statewide, it would be more effective if we can move to that – whether it might happen, how long it might (take to) happen. Is it inconvenient? It might be for people, depending where the boat is and where they’re coming from. But, certainly whatever efforts we can to do to stop, slow down, whatever we can, particular when we have a super-algae like starry stonewort, we have to do something. This is a wonderful first step. A lot of people have put a lot of time and a lot of money into this research”

While there was significant support for the program, very few boaters without a vested interest in specific lakes were part of the preparation process over the last several months. Alicia O’Hare, a water resource specialist with the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District, presented the plan to the board and fielded several questions for those in attendance, including how will data be collected as part of this project and how will it be quantified to determine whether the pilot project is a success or not?

“I want to emphasize that this is a logistical pilot – we want to find whether this regional inspection program will operate,” O’Hare said. “The primary goal is does the logistics of the plan work? Can we operate the site? Do we have enough staff? Can we staff it will few enough people to make it more efficient? Also, the number of inspections will show us a bit more of that effectiveness.”

The unresolved issue is enforcement. It has been deemed that exit inspections of boats wouldn’t hold up in court, so the pilot project can only conduct entry inspections. But, for those in violation of the ordinance, who does the enforcement? Chief Deputy Todd Hoffman of the Wright County Sheriff’s Department said that remains an open question.

“It’s unfortunate we’re at this position,” Hoffman said. “This is clearly a statewide issue, not a local issue. These local ordinances do create potential issues for local law enforcement. This does shift the responsibility away from a state agency that’s sole purpose is for natural resources and now puts it on local law enforcement. Are we local law enforcement adequately equipped to do this? I don’t know. We haven’t started it yet.”

Hoffman suggested that perhaps the parks department could be put in charge of dealing with handing out citations for violations of the ordinance, as well as recent imposition of no-wake zones on county lakes during high water periods. Hoffman added that the sheriff’s department is willing to work with the project but unknowns remain.

“We haven’t worked out the kinks,” Hoffman said. “We’ll work with Soil and Water to work out some of these kinks. But, just for the board’s understanding, we are now taking on AIS basically for the State of Minnesota. We are the pilot. Hopefully it will work out just fine.”

After almost an hour of discussion and debate, the board voted unanimously to proceed with the pilot project. For those interested, the entire plan and correspondence between the county at the DNR are available on the county’s website as part of the Sept. 19 board agenda item.

In other items on the Sept. 19 agenda, the board:

Scheduled a committee of the whole meeting for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15 to conduct a public hearing to discuss a proposal from Advanced Disposal Inc. for a request to expand its current landfill facility.

Adopted a resolution accepting the findings of fact and ordering that a request from Knife River for the expansion of a current gravel mining operation be required.

Approved an annual grant for the sheriff’s department with the Minnesota Department of Safety’s “Toward Zero Deaths” program. The funds are to enhance the sheriff’s department traffic safety initiatives. The grant is in the amount of $27,300 and there is no matching funds required.

Authorized signatures on law enforcement contracts with the Cities of Albertville, Maple Lake, Otsego, South Haven and St. Michael. The contracts are for 2018-19 and the sheriff’s department will be paid $72 an hour in 2018 and $74.50 in 2019. In a related item, approved hiring a deputy in the sheriff’s department as the result of an increase of department contract hours with the Cities of Montrose and Waverly.

Authorized advertising for the new ditch coordinator position.

Approved hiring a replacement for the facility manager position. The current manager is retiring and the position replacement was approved at the Sept. 7 Budget Committee of the Whole meeting.

Referred to the Sept. 27 Technology Committee discussion of the status of the Office 365 transition and the status of the project upgrade portfolio.

Convened the meeting with just three commissioners, as Commissioners Charlie Borrell and Mike Potter were attending an economic development conference. Both would eventually arrive at the meeting and take part in later votes on the agenda.