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Lake Minnetonka locals reflect on effects of invasive species

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Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

ST. PAUL -- The year was 1981, and Dave Runkle had just moved into his Carman Bay lakeshore property along Lake Minnetonka in the St. Paul area. The home was perfect, he said, and the waterfront access onto the lake was clear and pristine.

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Nearly 30 years later, Runkle said the shore along his property is completely weeded over and no longer glimmers the way it used to the day he and his wife, LuAnn, moved in.

Aquatic invasive species are to blame for this change in landscape, particularly Eurasian water milfoil in the Runkles' case. And it isn't just limited to the Carman Bay area.

Lake Minnetonka is one of the state's most infected water bodies, with six types of AIS now confirmed. The invasive species are: common carp (late 1800s), curlyleaf pondweed (late 1800s), Eurasian water milfoil (1987), largemouth bass virus (2006), flowering rush (2009) and zebra mussel (2010).

"A lake is not a bathtub, so weeds are going to pop up, but they shouldn't inhibit boat navigation," Runkle said.

Since its discovery, milfoil has affected more than 5,000 acres of the lake.

And the six invasive species are a problem that isn't likely to go away, since treatment is either not an option or limited and comes at a cost.

Dick Osgood, executive director of the Lake Minnetonka Association, estimates that 80 to 90 percent of members in the LMA deal with some form of invasive species.

"I'm advising people not to breathe easy yet," Osgood said. "We're only getting started here and don't know the full impact yet."

Osgood, who has an extensive background in biology and owns a lake consultation company, said he is concerned that the lake could easily fall to more severe types of invasive species, just like areas of the Great Lakes have.

"The Great Lakes are the poster children for aquatic invasive species," he said. "In the Southeastern part of the U.S., I've seen cases with Hydrilla, which makes surface mats worse than milfoil."

This year marks the sixth year the LMA underwent herbicide treatment to keep water milfoil and pondweed concentrations lower. The treatment plan is a continuation of a five-year demonstration project that began in 2008.

Seventy percent of all funds used to combat AIS in the state is concentrated on controlling invasive plants, according to a study by the Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations.

With more than 30 distinct bays, preventing and managing invasive species in Lake Minnetonka has led to widespread efforts from many local government units, as well as from volunteers.

In 2012 alone, local government bodies and volunteer resources spent nearly $2 million in the prevention and management of AIS, $1 million of which was concentrated on Lake Minnetonka and select metro area water bodies, according to the same study.

Joseph Shneider, Head of the Coalition of Minnehaha Creek Waters, said the coalition was formed about a year ago to focus heavily on preventing any more invasive species from entering Lake Minnetonka or surrounding lakes.

"We are trying to target all of the species that are transferred by humans," Shneider said.

Pushing for stronger boat inspection regulations, he said the CMCW believes in 100 percent incoming boat inspection, at both high- and low-volume public water accesses.

"Some people complain about it, but most people are pretty good about the inspections," he said. "Some people think we're crazy, saying we're never going to stop it (AIS), and others are thankful for our efforts."

With so many accesses to the lake, Osgood estimated that nearly 60 percent of all incoming boats at Lake Minnetonka are inspected.

According to Shneider, prevention is key in controlling the invasive species, as it's easier to prevent additional species from invading a body of water than it is to managing existing invasive species.

"The reality is the stuff that's coming is worse than what we already have to deal with," Shneider said.

Invasive species such as Hydrilla -- similar to water milfoil -- and quagga mussel -- similar to zebra mussel -- are two of Shneider's biggest worries, and he said they would speed up a destructive process that has already taken hold in Lake Minnetonka.

Referring to Lake Michigan as an example of the long-term effects zebra mussel can have on a large body of water, such as its slow deterioration of the food chain and reduced commercial fishing, Shneider said he doesn't expect to see the worst effects of the current invasive species that have affected Lake Minnetonka for another 15 to 20 years.

"We are years away from seeing the destruction of the ecosystem, but it's started," he said.

While Shneider said the worst effects are yet to come, he said the presence of the invasive species is already starting to show.

"People are cutting their feet and hands (from zebra mussel), so now people have to wear water shoes," he said. Irrigation pipes are also at risk to zebra mussels, Shneider said.

Water milfoil and pondweed buildup has also caused strains to boaters and anglers.

Osgood predicted that nearly 20 percent of Lake Minnetonka shoreline has been invaded by flowering rush.

And while Shneider said he doesn't see a way to ever fully control the invasive species, Runkle believes there are more options available to combat invasive species that simply aren't being utilized.

"I'd like to see proactiveness and comprehensiveness in targeting the problem," he said. "Everybody (referring to different agencies and groups dealing with AIS) has their own interests, and when you have so many cooks in the kitchen, you don't always get the souffle you want."

According to the MN COLA report, volunteer AIS spending increased by more than 35 percent in the past three years, with a doubling of lake and river association spending. Local government spending has increased by about 50 percent in that same time, making for about a 40 percent overall increase in local AIS funding.

But for Runkle, this simply isn't enough.

"There has been no outside evaluation in what has been going on," he said. "Individuals are trying to get their neighbors to cough up the money to get it under control, and we're doing what we can."

Because of a variety of circumstances, Runkle said homeowners can only contribute so much monetarily in the fight against invasive species, and that continuing to inform the public about the persistent threat is important to fend of the aquatic nuisances.

"It's a tough problem, but the hardest problem we face is understanding the problem," he said. "People will start caring about the problem when they can't get their boat in the bay, and we need to get out of this box and do something before that happens."

Making it a personal goal to help ward off further invasive species and protect the water bodies that make the state unique, Shneider said he is urging people not to give up on this ongoing cause.

"We have an opportunity to protect our waters for the future generations," he said. "We can squander this, saying it's the future generation's problem, but I don't think it's good stewardship and I want to keep the Land of 10,000 Lakes around."

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