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Lake Minnie Belle decontamination unit is part of Meeker County's AIS control efforts
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During the summer of 2020, people from 21 different states put a boat into one of Meeker County’s 104 lakes.

It’s an impressive number, one that speaks volumes about the area’s popularity as a recreational destination. But for those concerned about protecting the lakes from foreign invaders — zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil, starry stonewort and the like — that heavy and wide-ranging aquatic traffic is a bit worrisome, as well.

That’s part of the reason the county added another weapon to its arsenal this summer, as it continues efforts to stem the tide of infested lakes, which currently numbers nine. In June, the public access on the east side of Lake Minnie Belle became home to a new watercraft decontamination unit, which can clean and remove aquatic invasive species from boats.

“Everybody kind of thinks it’s everywhere, and everypne thinks, well, why are we doing this, because it’s just going to be everywhere?” Mike Solbrack, chairman of the Meeker County Aquatic Invasive Species Advisory Committee, said. “But the stuff’s been around a long time, and less than 10 percent of our lakes have AIS. So, you know, this prevention stuff, I think it’s important, to try to prevent the spread.”

That “prevention stuff” has included boat inspectors at 12 to 15 county lakes throughout the summer the past few years.

Despite those efforts, nine lakes — Clear, Erie, Little Mud, Manuella, Minnie Belle, Ripley, Stella, Washington and Wolf — have been infested with Eurasian watermilfoil, and three of those — Stella, Washington and Minnie Belle — also have documented zebra mussel infestations.

Minnie Belle’s zebra mussel infestation was confirmed by the Department of Natural Resources in October last year, as the species was found at two different sites in the lake, indicating an established population, according to the DNR.

The arrival of AIS in a lake can be devastating. Zebra mussels compete with native lake species for food and habitat, and they also can cut the feet of swimmers, reduce boat motor performance and damage water intake pipes. Eurasian watermilfoil is an aquatic vegetation that creates dense mats at the water’s surface, stifles native aquatic plants and harms food, shelter and nesting habitat for native animals.

Both AIS present a serious threat to Meeker County’s status as a destination for recreational boaters and anglers. Thus, the investment in boat inspectors, and now, a decontamination unit.

“By staffing a decontamination unit it mitigates some of that traffic we have going from our infested waters to our uninfested waters, and that allows us to minimize the amount of unchecked traffic that we have going towards our lakes that don't have zebra mussels or don't have Eurasian milfoil or starry stonewort,” said Ariana Richardson, Meeker County AIS coordinator.

Richardson was hired in 2019 as Meeker County’s first paid AIS coordinator. In that position, she works with the AIS Advisory Committee, as well as the contractors who hire and manage the watercraft inspectors at county lakes. Meeker County’s proactive approach and active advisory committee members have made a big difference in efforts to minimize AIS spread in county lakes, Richardson said.

“Not all counties have advisory committees or coordinators, and some don’t have, you know, both if they do have one,” Richardson said. “So one of the big things to kind of brag about, I think, is how active our committee has been. We’ve had folks that have been on (the advisory committee) since the very beginning (in 2014).”

Meeker County and its Aquatic Invasive Species Advisory Committee receive funding from the state each year and use it to fund 15 to 20 projects on county lakes, including projects like training residents and lake association members to do watercraft inspections and identify AIS, supporting boat inspections and using harvesters and chemical treatments to manage invasive species in county lakes.

The state has provided $10 million to counties since the statewide AIS program’s inception in 2014. Meeker County received $228,460 in state AIS aid this year, which was set aside to assist in treatment, additional inspection hours and outreach efforts. Additionally, the county allocated $124,000 in community grants for lake improvements.

The decontamination unit, which cost about $18,000, was paid for out of a newly established infestation response fund, which funds early detection and response to recent infestations in the county, and was a purchase that was "carefully considered," Richardson said.

The county contracts with a company that hires the inspectors, trains them and oversees their employment. Inspection hours were trimmed somewhat this year to allow for more hours of staffing at the decontamination unit.

The decontamination unit is a self contained, high pressure, high heat wash unit that can decontaminate watercraft at the public water access without allowing any of the wash water to run off. Boat owners drive their trailered watercraft onto the collection pad to use the system.

The unit is staffed from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, with the Lake Minnie Belle Association funding weekday coverage. Since it opened, the unit has been used for 11 decontaminations in June and July.

“The goal is .. when you bring your boat in, and it has any kind of standing water or water left in the bilge or bays or live well, they will use whatever tools are necessary” to decontaminate it, Richardson said. “They use the decontamination unit to create contact with the watercraft surfaces of concern — heated water up to 140 degrees — because 10 seconds of contact with that heated water kills off any kind of (AIS) or zebra mussels.”

Watercraft inspections and suggestions for decontamination have been contentious in some areas, according to Richardson. Some boaters have felt the inspections an unnecessary burden, or an effort to catch other violations. That led to an increase around the state in confrontations between boaters and inspectors, especially during the summer of 2020, she said.

But early efforts in boat inspections and its proactive approach seem to have limited those problems at Meeker County lakes.

“We’ve really been able to tear down, perhaps, misunderstanding at the launch, or animosity at the launch locally,” Richardson said. “You know, I didn’t really get complaints of people being angry or having anything bad happen last summer. And I think with the pandemic, we you really (saw) that some folks aren't on that same page. Kind of statewide, one of the trends we saw in 2020 was that people were really not happy to see inspectors.”

In the end, Richardson said, inspections and the new decontamination unit are part of what she hopes can be a team approach to keeping Meeker County’s recreational waterways clean and safe for everyone to use.

“Most of the counties around us … have had historically, many more (problems), from year to year,” she said. “Really, I wouldn’t say lucky, but we’ve seen the fruits of good boater behavior and early response with regard to inspections. The (AIS advisory) committee is really there to help give input from the community so that we are taking action that's not just in the best interest of the lake health and ecosystem health and economic health of the county, but also so that we know that what we're doing, actually is going to work for the people here.

“When we’re doing these decontaminations, we’re doing them so that we don’t wind up with zebra mussels at three or four of our other lakes within the next year,” Richardson said. "Our main message we want to get across to folks is that when we offer or require the decontaminations, boaters do their part to protect the lakes by allowing us the extra few minutes to help maintain their equipment and protect our lakes."

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There's no stopping an antique car buff
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Gregg Lange broke three vertebrae in his neck in a May car crash.

But even though he’s still recovering, Lange wasn’t going to let a few broken bones keep him from participating in the New London to New Brighton Antique Car Run Saturday — even if it meant being a passenger instead of a driver in the annual salute to the earliest automobiles.

“I’m really disappointed I don’t have my Autocar here, but I’m pleased to be able to ride with my friend,” Lange said as he perched in the passenger seat of Bruce Van Sloun’s 1907 Ford during a stop in Central Park in Litchfield. “My car’s not broken, but I am.”

Lange, a Saginaw, Michigan, resident has participated in the New London to New Brighton run “16 or 18 times,” he said Saturday. The crash on Mother’s Day weekend left him seriously injured, and he had to learn to walk all over again

“I’m lucky to be alive,” Lange, 82, said with a grin. “But I’m tickled to death to be here.”

Lange usually drives a 1904 Autocar in the run. The 2-cylinder “horseless carriage” is one of several vintage automobiles he owns, including a second Autocar, a 1910 Baker electric, and Buicks from 1915 and 1916.

The fascination with old vehicles took hold in his younger years and only grew from there, Lange said. In addition to participating in the New London to New Brighton tour, Lange has organized tours himself. It has given him a strong appreciation for the Minnesota run, which marked its 35 year this year.

“I have conducted tours, probably eight or 10 of them now, and so I know what it takes to put on a good tour,” Lange said. “And these people have their act together. I mean, this … I’ve been to several tours around the country, and this is the best one, best organized group, and the people are just awesome. I mean, both the organizers and the people people that play with this junk are just really nice people.”

The run recreates the annual London to Brighton Commemorative Run, which began in 1896 to celebrate repeal of the so-called “red flag law,” which required motor vehicles to be led by a man carrying a red flag to warn horse-drawn carriage drivers to hold reins of the horses, lest they be frightened by the horseless carriage’s approach.

The New London to New Brighton Antique Car Run is a 120-mile jaunt, which includes three stops in Meeker County – Grove City, Litchfield and Kingston. Participation is limited to vehicles manufactured in 1908 or earlier, or to 1- or 2-cylinder vehicles up to 1915. An average of 60 vehicles, sometimes including bikes and motorcycles, as well as steam and electric cars, participate each year.

“I always thought they looked nice, the old cars with the wooden spoke wheels and rickety tops, and I collected old photographs from magazines and things of early cars and steam tractors,” Lange said. “And then, by the time I had a driver’s license, I had three old cars — my parents tolerated my addiction. I have found the disease is not fatal, but it’s a lot of fun.”

His addiction has been encouraged through his participation in the Horseless Carriage Club, a national group that caters to the interests of vintage automobile owners. The club’s bimonthly publication includes stories about automobile history and tutorials on how to repair the vehicles.

That knowledge has helped Lange keep his cars in shape for the New London to New Brighton run, and he hopes that by next year his body will be in good enough shape to be back behind the wheel again.

“I’ve told my physical therapy people, my goal is to be able to crank my Autocar and drive my Autocar and put it in a trailer and chain it down and drive it to Minnesota,” Lange said with a chuckle. “I want to be back here next year, but driving myself again.”

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No masks required: Litchfield School Board sets course for start of school year
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When they head back to school in a couple of weeks, Litchfield Public Schools students will do so without a requirement that they wear masks.

Litchfield School Board, on a 4-1 vote Aug. 9, approved a motion by member Alex Carlson that said the district would not require students or staff to wear masks at the start of the school year. The motion seemed to leave the door open to a return to mask-wearing, however, as it included that the board would review recommendations from the district’s COVID Response Team on a monthly basis.

The motion also included language that “recommended” masks, per guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Health.

“Our job is to educate, not mandate,” School Board Chairman Darrin Anderson said at one point in the discussion of the motion. “I truly feel Mom and Dad should be making that decision” of whether their children should wear a mask at school.

Approval of the motion came awkwardly, perhaps illustrating how difficult the decision was for some members of the board. Carlson’s first motion passed 4-1, with support from Anderson, Marcia Provencher and Michelle Falling, while Greg Mathews voted against.

Immediately after the vote, however, questions about the motion’s wording arose, and whether the “masks not required” edict would stay in place for the entire school year.

Falling then moved to rescind the motion, which passed unanimously. A brief discussion and an attempt by Anderson to clarify the motion’s scope followed.

“I think we all knew the intent of what we wanted to do,” Anderson said, adding that he wanted to emphasize the “no requirement” to start the school year, but that the board could, at any time it thought necessary, revisit the decision.

It seemed an important clarification, given comments Falling made immediately after Carlson’s first “no requirement” motion.

“I am concerned the decision we make tonight, is a decision that is a decision that is a permanent decision? Is this a decision that, if the COVID cases continue to rise, and we have concerns … what kind of flexibility do we have as a board to change our decision? If we make our decision now and cases go up …”

Provencher agreed with the difficulty of the situation, calling it a “tough decision,” and adding, “Whatever actions we take, they’ve got to be data driven. Dr. Deb (Peterson) gave us some data. To me, that’s what we should be listening to. That’s what I think I’ve always supported. And I support that we also have the kids always at the top of our list as to what’s good for them. I’m really torn on this one.”

Dr. Peterson, chief medical officer at Meeker Memorial Hospital and Clinics, was invited to the meeting by Superintendent Beckie Simenson and board Mathews. She spoke during the board’s public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, acknowledging the board’s challenging task but also emphasizing that COVID-19 numbers are rising in the area, due largely to the delta variant which has caused spikes throughout the country.

“I wish I had better news,” she said. “In the last two weeks, with the delta variant, COVID has kind of gone off the rails again.”

COVID positivity rate in Meeker County is “almost 7%,” she said, after being .9% positive just three weeks earlier.

“So it’s kind of an exponential curve upward,” Peterson added. “Along with that, people in the hospital has gone way up,” from 116 COVID patients in hospitals around the state in mid-July, to 327 as of Sunday, with 109 of those in intensive care units. Additionally, she said, the delta variant is hitting younger people,.

“I thought all weekend about what I even want to tell you,” she said. “I know you don’t want to mask the kids. I know people will pull out of the school district if they have to mask, and I know that’s a financial impact for the Litchfield School District. I also know that if we don’t, we’ll probably have a mess. So it’s tough.

“I don’t have the perfect answer,” Peterson added. “I’m just here to kind of give you the bad news of where things are at. And I wish I wasn’t. So it’s, it’s a mess.”

In offering his motion, Carlson focused on parental control. Referring to an informational packet provided to the board, Carlson said that there were 39 COVID-19 cases, six among children 5 to 18 years old, in Meeker County during the past 60 days.

“So, we need to give our families back a little bit of say in how they engage in the school year, not hand them a requirement,” Carlson said. “We’ve spent this summer talking about these social, emotional challenges our staff and our students have gone through. And I don’t want to rehash that. But I’m sure it’s been hard, and if we give them back a little bit of say … in times of uncertainty, giving people say helps how they engage.”

Mathews, who has steadfastly supported mask requirements, said he would continue to do so, because “I believe in preventative action.”

“I think we agree that we’re all in this for the right reasons, for what’s the good of the kids,” Mathews added. “The question, of course, becomes what is best for our kids.”