FAIRMONT - The campaign to stop aquatic hitchhikers isn't new, but there are still plenty of boaters out there who aren't in compliance with Minnesota laws attempting to curb the spread of invasive species such as Eurasian milfoil and zebra mussels.
Neither of these pervasive pests have been reported in Fairmont's waters, but the rules still apply. Before launching your boat or leaving the lake access, boaters must not:
o Transport aquatic plants, zebra mussels or other prohibited species on public roads.
A sign at Budd Lake encourages boaters to help stop aquatic hitchhikers. Before launching and before leaving, boaters are to remove aquatic plants and aquatic animals; drain water away from the landing; and dispose of unwanted live bait in the trash.
o Launch a watercraft or place a trailer in the water if it has aquatic plants, zebra mussels or other prohibited species attached.
o Transport water from infested waters.
"It's illegal to transport any water, and to make sure you're not transporting any water, you have to pull any plug that might hold water," said Eric Schettler of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
And keep it pulled. Anyone pulling a boat down the road that doesn't have the plugs pulled can get a $100 citation.
"It's a pretty serious deal, and it doesn't matter who it is," Schettler said.
As the DNR's conservation officer for the Martin County area, a good portion of his time this summer has been spent patrolling public water accesses and talking to boaters about AIS - aquatic invasive species. He has heard every excuse in the book: older boaters who have said they can't reach the plug to pull it out; antique boat owners who didn't realize the rule applied to them; people who insist they have no water in their boats; and those who say they just didn't know.
"The DNR commissioner and our colonel and even the governor are all pushing this. It's a big campaign, and they all say no excuses. You should know, and if you don't know you're living in a hole in the ground or something," Schettler said.
Based on the feedback he has received from his superiors, the compliance rate across the state is only at about 50 percent. That means either a lot of people are living underground, or they're not sold on the importance of the campaign.
"These are everybody's lakes and everybody uses them in one shape or form," Schettler said. "I'm only one person and I can't police them all. Everybody has to do their part."
The two invasive species most frequently talked about are Eurasian milfoil and zebra mussels. To view Minnesota's infested waters list, visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/index_aquatic.html
Eurasian milfoil is a plant that was accidently introduced to North America from Europe, according to the DNR's website. In nutrient-rich lakes, this invasive type of milfoil can form vast mats of vegetation on the water's surface, and thick underwater stands of tangled stems. It can crowd out important native water plants, and put a serious damper on water recreation.
Boats are the most likely means of spreading this invasive species. Milfoil can easily get tangled up in boat propellers and trailers, sailboat keels and rudders, or any watercraft apparatus.
"I've seen it on trailers, where they look like dreadlocks hanging down," Schettler said.
For a good example of Eurasian milfoil, check out Lake Minnetonka, where boaters are now required to wash down their watercraft before entering and exiting the lake.
"If we get that Eurasian water milfoil, that will choke out these lakes," Schettler said. "You might as well have a duck slough."
Zebra mussels are no laughing matter either. Females can produce up to 500,000 eggs in a year, resulting in millions of fingernail-size mussels that attach themselves to any solid surface a lake has to offer.
"As a community we need to try to prevent invasive species, especially as we're becoming more and more attractive to out-of-town boaters," said Mike Humpal, Fairmont city administrator and president of Fairmont Lakes Foundation.
In other Minnesota lake communities, the DNR is getting a helping hand from lake association members, who are volunteering to police their own shores and help educate the public about the importance of stopping aquatic hitchhikers. Fairmont Lakes Foundation is floundering, though, with not enough active members for the organization to take on projects like this.
"We need to take action, but we need volunteers," Humpal said.
Boaters aren't the only ones who should be concerned about aquatic hitchhikers. For instance, if zebra mussels get in Fairmont's lakes, the city would be tasked with cleaning the critters out of the intake pumps that pull water from Budd Lake to the water treatment plant.
"Up by Lake Michigan, that's a major source of concern, and it does become very expensive," Humpal said.
Attempts to control these species are not only costly, they're seemingly never ending, as there is no way of eradicating Eurasian milfoil or zebra mussels once a lake is infested. There are other negative side effects too, such as plummeting lakeshore properties.
"These are issues we need to stay on top of and be proactive in trying to prevent," Humpal said.
This is one of the reasons the city has hired Tyler Cowing in its engineering department to work on water resources. Cowing will be in charge of stormwater management, shoreland restoration and other water-related projects.
City staff also are making plans in preparation for more DNR mandates, namely wash-down stations for boats. Humpal said one option might be to create a station by the fish-cleaning facility at Gomsrud Park. There are a lot of factors to consider beyond locations, however, like how much it will cost and how it will be run. For instance, up by Lake Minnetonka, Humpal said that lake's association has elaborate wash-down stations that are manned by hired help.
Anyone interested in joining Fairmont Lakes Foundation can contact Humpal by email at email@example.com, or call City Hall at (507) 238-9461, extension 2236.
"It's not only invasive species we need to be worried about," he said. "There are a lot of lake restoration projects a private group can spearhead."