Wright County Regional Inspection Coalition
AIS Prevention Strategies
Given the rapid spread of invasive species in Annandale area lakes and the dependence of the city of Annandale on a vital, recreational lake economy and tax base, the initiative sought to replace the state’s conventional lake-access-only inspection model with a centralized, mandatory regional entrance inspection and decontamination strategy. The Wright Regional Inspection Program (WRIP) was based in part on a 2012 DNR-funded study that concluded that regional inspections were 10 times more cost-effective than at-the-ramp inspections. In the years between 2011 and today, the DNR, however, did not sponsor or endorse any such pilot to test that assertion.
In the first year of operation the focus was on three of the county’s waterbodies in East and West Lake Sylvia, Lake John and Pleasant Lake. Note: Both Lake Sylvia and Pleasant have infestations of starry stonewort but were otherwise believed to be free of other invasive species. In a scheduled second year in 2019, six more lakes would be added to the pilot, including Cedar, Granite, Maple, Bass, Sugar and Moose Lakes.
Goal 1: Demonstrate that regional inspection sites could deliver expanded coverage and greater cost efficiency—consistent with the DNR-sponsored study indicating regional inspection was 10 times more cost effective than current efforts used statewide.
Goal 2: Generate data which will be valuable to understand if (and which parts of) this model is leverageable for other counties.
Goal 3: Expand activities to broaden community representation and understanding of the program. This eventually led to an AIS advisory group that was formed in 2018 and included the soil and water conservation district, County Commissioners, DNR, lake associations, a recreational fisherman and law enforcement.
With its pilot program in place, the proposition—Ordinance Amendment 1701—moved to the Wright Country Board on June 27, 2017, where public discussion was predictably mixed, pro and con, as it had been at previous public meetings in the county. Nonetheless, The Wright County Board unanimously approved what could have been a precedent-setting pilot program in Minnesota's fight against AIS, calling for a mandatory, centralized inspection requirement prior to launch at three lakes in Wright County: Lake Sylvia, Lake John and Pleasant Lake, with an on-site decontamination station at the centralized inspection location to help prevent and protect against the spread of the dreaded invaders, including zebra mussels, starry stonewort and others.
The ordinance was based on Minnesota Statute 84D, which was amended in 2012 to allow for a mandatory, regional inspection/decontamination program and created funding for county-based AIS prevention aid. Notably, over six years no county or state agency had pursued such an objective prior to the Wright County pilot. Once passed, the plan went to the Minnesota DNR for final approval of the signage, tagging and other details that made up the pilot.
Unfortunately, the WRIP in 2017 was ineffective because it started too late in the boating and fishing season when many people began removing boats and docks with the approach of cold weather. The delay cost the program Initiative Foundation funding because that source of money was set to expire. Thus, year one of the WRIP was already at a distinct disadvantage with the late start.
The WRIP was passed in 2017 and was partially implemented that fall with set-up costs of $61,238.99 (according to the WRIP 2018 final year-end report). Its first full year of operations—costing $242,285.66 (based on the same report)—did not occur until the open water season in 2018, roughly May through October of that year.
Funding for 2018 WRIP came from three primary sources: Lake association contributions; state AIS prevention funds administered by Wright Soil and Water Conservation District (WSWCD); and a grant from the LSOHC (as administered by the Initiative Foundation). Outcomes associated with the 2018 season included:
- Inspections for the lakes in the program increased 51% compared to 2017.
- Wait times to begin inspections were low—average was 30 seconds.
- Average Inspection time was 2.7 minutes.
- Sixty-eight inspections failed with 16 zebra mussel violations (all of which were corrected prior to issuing a tag).
- All violations were identified and corrected before accessing the lake.
- Average decontamination time was 15.8 minutes.
- Staffing with 2 inspectors saved time and contributed to the low wait times experienced, creating excellent traffic flow.
Other noteworthy accomplishments included:
- More inspections: 1,780 additional entering inspections compared to previous year.
- High compliance rates: 92.4% of inspections complied with the ordinance.
- Safety improvements: Two-person teams increased the safety of decontamination services—unlike prior county inspection and decontamination services, which were performed by only one paid county employee.
- On-site facility improvements included:
- A heated and air-conditioned office was installed which provided a safer and more comfortable working environment for inspectors, complete with city-operated severe weather warning sirens, a telephone, security cameras, lights, the ability to eliminate inspectors at remote, unsecured locations, a portable toilet and a location just minutes from Annandale city police, rescue, fire and ambulance service.
- A new storage building for the decontamination unit was provided, which saved time for staff by not having to transport the unit each day to an offsite, secure building.
- Land line phone service and WiFi phone access to request assistance if needed, communicate with the inspection service provider, obtain medical assistance and law enforcement assistance.
The wide-ranging achievements and positive community support, for the most part, in 2018 demonstrated that the program had surplus capacity for the available traffic. A 2019 expansion was operationally ready to add an additional six lakes (Cedar, Granite, Maple, Bass, Sugar, Moose), which would provide even more traffic to prove the WRIP’s cost-effectiveness.
The 2019 version of the program also would add a new "spot-checker" position that would offer exit inspections for all lakes in the program within a 15-mile radius of the centralized inspection station in Annandale. The six lakes all had committed and known funding levels for each lake as their share of costs associated with additional numbers of inspections.
The spot-checker would be a DNR-certified Level 1 inspector who, when at a ramp, would inspect all boats exiting the ramp. In addition, the spot-checker would verify that seals of inbound boats are unbroken before launch and ensure that boaters that do not park at the ramp comply with the ordinance.
In the past, the lack of exit inspections was a frequent criticism of the WRIP program—and on the face of it, that may have seemed counter-intuitive to some. Other challenges about the illegal re-use of boat tag receipts became another criticism not only with a minority of users but also the DNR. The tagging issue was succinctly addressed in a March 27, 2019, letter to Steven Colvin, director for the DNR’s division of Ecological and Water Resources, from Luke Johnson, a district manager for the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District – a major partner in the WRIP.
In addressing the “Tagging Protocol,” SWCD’s Johnson wrote:
“There were some problems in 2018 with the seal and receipt model that we are looking to address in 2019 with the quality control spot-checkers. In 2018 there were 261 instances of reuse from the 5,268 seal/receipts issued. The 2019 spot checks will occur randomly at each of the public ramps in the program, staff will verify seals are still affixed and the broken seal is placed in the box. A boater arriving with only a receipt would be informed that a new seal and receipt is required whenever water related equipment travels over a public road.”
“Making mid-season changes to the seal/receipt process was discussed after evidence of re-use was discovered. We felt that implementing an expiration date on seals/receipts mid-season was a major change to the program that would be very difficult to educate the public of and may further erode public confidence in the program.”
Earlier in Johnson’s letter, he expressed the apparent frustration with DNR response times, critical delays—perhaps by choice, indifference or through bureaucratic under sight—that often overshadowed the WRIP process and what was initially seen as a truly collaborative partnership between a robust state agency and a well-organized citizen driven initiative to protect Minnesota waters.
Johnson’s remarks included:
“We are certainly aware the 2018 Wright Regional Inspection Program (WRIP) had some operational shortcomings. Many of these concerns were discussed between SWCD and DNR staff during the 2018 program. Your written comments on the 2018 season are very much appreciated as constructive criticism, which is always a useful tool for positive change. With that said, I must stress that receiving these comments after the plan for the current season has been submitted puts the SWCD in a reactionary position that could have been avoided. Your staff members that have been working on this program are quite knowledgeable and have been very available to Wright SWCD staff when questions have arisen, it would be very helpful for future operations if these individuals could provide official comments on the front end in order to expedite the process and reduce unnecessary revisions”.
An inspection seal tag is attached to a boat entering a lake; some cited occasional abuse of this process. The state agency had to approve the expansion program by April 15, 2019, to ensure that another full boating and fishing season could provide additional data points that the DNR claimed were deficient in the previous year. The newly enhanced WRIP program would add only $60,000 for new spot-checker component—“almost double the $34,600 that has been provided for the same lakes in Wright County Soil and Water Conservation District, by comparison,” noted Hector.
Funding sources remained largely in place from previous year, with an additional $128,314.00 added to the bottom line in 2019, which included funds from lake associations that were part of the expansion. Most associated with the WRIP believed these costs were fiscally conservative and a responsible use of dollars to fight AIS, plus a good investment in water resources for all users for the present and future.
Despite efforts by Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates and the Minnesota Coalition of Lakes Associations, the WRIP failed. Operations ceased on July 12, 2019.
Chris Hector and fellow board members Blaine Barkley, Doug Flatz and Kathy Jonsrud issued a brief, four-point checklist appraisal of the abrupt collapse of what looked to be a promising program that could have become another viable platform to manage and prevent the spread of AIS:
- No support from the DNR to fund or enforce a regional inspection model. The lack of DNR engagement and a long-term funding model was interpreted as a negative by Wright County Commissioners.
- The DNR and the Wright County Commissioners faced community polarization regarding the program. Strong support or strong opposition was the norm.
- The threat and impact of aquatic invasive species is either not fully understood or is minimized by some boaters.
- Exit inspections for the participating lakes were requested by the DNR and some members of the public. Exit inspections at the regional site are only possible if the DNR requires boaters to return to the site after leaving a participating lake.
What was your relationship with the DNR?
In short, the plug was prematurely pulled before the WRIP had a chance to demonstrate success with the efficiencies of a nine-lake program, and to benefit from the learning that an expanded effort would generate. Others may wonder if total project costs—not to mention the thousands of hours of unpaid time put in by board members, coalition partners and individual volunteers—had not been in vain.
When you look at the background of those involved in this project, however, we were able to bring forward the expertise from the scientific community, the legal community, project management community, public affairs community and other professions -- an incredible list of extremely talented individuals, not just a group of everyday people trying to do something. We had an unusually high degree of quality and expertise that the DNR or other organizations would be hard pressed to put together.
Conclusions (from 2018 season)
As a first for the state, the pilot program provided a great deal of information about the potential of regional inspection programs. The primary information learned was, the opportunities for improvement, logistics regarding traffic, tag returns and enforcement, the benefits of regional inspections, and the minimum costs.
One aspect of WRIP that is both a benefit and a challenge is the number of partners involved. Between the volunteers from lake associations, law enforcement, Wright SWCD, Wright County, legal, the DNR, and contracts there are a lot of voices in the room. This can be a challenge when it comes to decision making but also provides the opportunity for many great ideas.
The greatest benefit to using a regional model was the combination of traffic to one location. There was a 51% increase in entering boater traffic and the inspectors stayed just as busy as they did at the ramp based on inspections per hour. In addition, boaters who failed inspection no longer required any additional travel to reach a decontamination station as it was on site.
The logistics of the regional approach worked well. The benefit combining the traffic from multiple ramps mitigated the negative effect on inspections per hour of expanded coverage and no required exit inspections. Even with the combined traffic, there was very little wait for boaters.
The WRIP remains an important example and collaborative strategy for future consideration. While it could have become a major tool in the AIS battle, it would be wrong to relegate its significance to footnote status. Remnants of the program will still exist with courtesy decontaminations available at 1300 Business Blvd in Annandale.
There remains a highly concentrated and formidable knowledge base–and data sets–among the WRIP stakeholder groups whose expertise will prove invaluable to other counties, lawmakers and concerned citizens that may one day want to add regional inspection to their AIS war chest. The model is forged and its viability is proven. There are alternative ways to salvage its utility. Perhaps the suggestion by Blaine Barkley is prudent to seriously consider: Restart the program as part of a MAIRSC effort to improve preservation of Minnesota waters.
WRIP leaders encourage the legislature to keep exploring innovative methods to control AIS and improve the inspection process across the board. It should also be asking the DNR to engage in a more collaborative process with citizen groups to solve shared resource problems that demand the participation of the public.
Overall LSOHC AIS Prevention Program Conclusions
Because some projects were delivered under budget, and two others were suspended, we anticipate “de-obligating” (not requesting allocated LSOHC funds) of nearly $500,000 in June.
As we prepare to conclude the project, we are reflecting back on the various strategies that were developed, including:
- Strategies to target “unusual suspects” for AIS prevention education (youth, wakeboarders, social media users)
- Emerging strategies to treat identified infestations through a range of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs, seeking greater treatment efficacy, cost/benefit, and/or reduced non-target impacts.
- Non-traditional inspection and/or decontamination programs to either improve convenience of engaging in ‘best practices” (through tagging, advance scheduling, placement of boat cleaning station at key locations, and enhanced skills in managing people by AIS inspectors), creation of innovative partnerships between resorts, sportsmen’s organizations, and lake associations to collaborate on AIS prevention and exploration of the state’s first mandatory inspection program.
Innovative education and outreach:
Innovative AIS control and education programs have been widely acknowledged as far removed from the traditional stable of conservation easement and high-priority land acquisition programs that the LSOHC generally espouses. However, these projects, though not permanent in nature, address the significant impacts to land and water resources that AIS pose. Left untreated, AIS severely impacts the habitat and outdoor recreational opportunities that LSOHC is committed to preserving.
The fact that many of the partners engaged in this project had not previously partnered with LSOHC resulted in a delay in many projects getting started; they weren’t prepared to seize the opportunity that matching funds represented. This, in part, is why we requested an extension to carry the project into a sixth year. Despite this delay, we are proud of the outcomes (and even the “lessons learned”) through this effort, and are grateful to the LSOHC for extending support well outside the traditional investments.
Projects supported by these funds surfaced many innovative strategies for engaging citizens that have either historically been considered “disengaged” with traditional AIS prevention messaging (wakeboarders), are potentially “influencers” (teenagers that are both future recreationalists, and also highly effective at bugging their parents to engage in best AIS prevention practices), as well as those have recognized and value AIS prevention messages but have been too busy or cognizant of countervailing economic pressures (resort owners and tourism boosters). In the first two examples, we have no doubt that the videos produced by the Mississippi Headwaters Board to reach wakeboarders (available on mississippiheadwaters.org) or the “Wipe Out Invasive Species” toilet paper (developed using private funds), which was part of the Crow River Organization for Water (CROW) programming, were clever, reached new audiences and changed knowledge, even if changes in behavior are difficult to document.
In contrast, the partnership on Lake Vermilion and in Cass and Itasca counties linked education (to resort owners and their guests) with direct action (sponsoring resort staff to help with inspections, etc.) and not only changed knowledge and behavior, but also forged lasting relationships between constituencies that have not always seen common interest.
The two CD3 projects (hosted by Wildlife Forever) were somewhere between these examples – they explored innovative ideas (use of geo-fencing to deliver location-specific information on fishing conditions and AIS risk or best practices; WiFi stations to support targeted videos at points of access or decontamination) and identified specific barriers (poor internet connections in rural locations), but also modified their product and project to respond to this input. In the end, the self-contained boat-cleaning stations now reflect designs most likely to be used, most resistant to vandalism and damage, and hopefully at a cost that local units of government and/or private resorts could consider deploying them without future state support.
A project initiated by the Aitkin Soil and Water Conservation District addressed a recent and unpopular caveat of Minnesota law requiring the dumping of bait and prohibition on the transport of water on exit from a lake. They incentivized bait shops and fishermen by providing clean water in bags to save bait, and also provided a deposit on the bags to encourage recycling.
In Cass County, AIS inspectors received “enhanced training,” both to equip them with knowledge and context for why inspections and decontamination are required and essential, but also in de-escalation techniques to manage difficult people and/or conflicts with public access users. In addition to improving the quality of interactions inspectors had with access users, the County also found that they retained veteran, skilled inspectors that received enhanced training at a much greater rate, saving time and money from season to season.
Five projects involved the direct treatment of known aquatic invasive species (as a strategy to prevent spread to other waters), and each contributed significantly to greater knowledge and should inform future work or investments in this type of approach.
The Marine-Carnelian Watershed District has long struggled with cost, ecological impact and efficacy of treating Eurasian watermilfoil. Their pilot project (developed in close coordination with DNR fisheries staff) resulted in several years of data that suggest they have identified an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) technique which is highly effective at reducing EWM reproduction or spread and has fewer nontarget impacts.
Two other treatment examples (of invasive cattails in Voyageurs National Park and of starry stonewort in Lake Koronis) were truly pilot efforts to control species not previously successfully managed in the upper Midwest. All would agree that the Koronis effort (at the first confirmed location of starry stonewort in Minnesota) has resulted in new insights and refined treatment of this invasive filamentous algae (even more important now that is has spread to over a dozen additional lakes within our state). Likewise, although management of the invasive cattails is less likely to be a priority outside of the National Park, the success of the approaches developed by Voyagers project is likely to permanently guide resource management plans, and like the Vermillion/Cass/Itasca project, helped create or deepen relationships (in this case with an adjacent tribal nation).
The fourth effort of treatment was intense mechanical treatment at public landings in Carver County (in lakes with known infestations of invasive species) with the goal of reducing export of viable AIS. This program provided “inconclusive results”—reducing vegetation near public accesses did not seem to impact the amount of vegetation (whether native or invasive) on boats exiting the lake.
Likewise, an effort by the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District to trap rusty crawfish in areas immediately adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness proved less than successful as weather conditions, existing crawfish populations, and available staff hindered their ability to trap sufficient numbers of the crustaceans to significantly impact overall populations. The bright spot in that effort was their educational strategy; SWCD staff participated in local fairs and events, holding "crawfish boils” and distributing information.
Efforts to improve the convenience or ease, cost, or efficacy of inspection and decontamination programs were the most difficult to assess. The Carver County effort to “tag” clean boats was intended to expedite re-entry, but DNR staff quickly expressed concerns about the quality of inspections and requested suspension of the effort.
In Kandiyohi County a valiant attempt was made to improve the speed and convenience of inspection by allowing for “reservations” (similar to a restaurant or barber) so that recreationalists could be “in and out” quickly. Although this idea continues to hold great appeal, a combination of limited marketing of the service, greater cost than anticipated, and turnover (both of paid county staff, and of the County Board that originally supported the project) resulted in early termination without ever fully testing the concept.
At Lake Vermillion an effort was made to improve the accuracy of boat traffic prediction as a strategy to most cost-effectively allocate AIS inspection resources, but a primary conclusion was that boat traffic patterns will vary so much (based on recreational uses, land ownership, and other variables) that a single algorithm or model is of limited value.
At the other extreme, Wright County attempted to explore the benefits and concerns associated with the first-in-Minnesota mandatory inspection program (similar to those in many western states), but found that the project experienced both regulatory barriers (particularly to scale the project so that is was cost-effective) and political opposition from well-organized advocates which created a climate where the project proponents felt the idea was never given an opportunity to succeed. The Initiative Foundation (LSOHC project hosts) supported this effort in full recognition that it would generate controversy, but in the hope of identifying conditions in which it could be successful, even if modifications were required over time.
The Citizens League’s Civic Governance Project’s project to increase coordination and collaboration between state/local governments and stakeholder groups revealed that a focus on Civic Leadership Development, while slow, is more sustainable than a simple civic engagement strategy. An organizing approach to water quality issues, including AIS, shows some promise in boosting the energy and quality of programs.
The Initiative Foundation was hopeful of hosting an “open house” for LSOHC members (and the public) in spring 2020 to tour project sites and ask questions directly from site managers. Given the pace of the legislative session, and other logistical barriers, we are instead producing a more lay-friendly version (illustrated with project specific professional photography and paid for with Foundation funds) to enhance recognition and understanding of the value of this project. Identical text (without photography) will be submitted to the council to fulfill our technical reporting obligations. To control (non-LSOHC) costs, this will be provided in PDF form, but commission members are encouraged to print copies for their own use, and the photography will be made available through LSOHC staff for future use.
This report was created in Adobe Spark. For the best viewing experience, visit the online presentation.