Non-native aquatic species pose a threat to Meeker and McLeod county lakes and lake goers.

Once infested with species such as zebra mussels or Eurasian watermilfoil, it’s difficult or even impossible to eradicate the threat to the lake.

Nine Meeker County lakes are infested with zebra mussels or Eurasian watermilfoil, and two McLeod County lakes are infested with Eurasian watermilfoil, according to a 2019 infested waters list published by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The good news is that the list has not grown in the past four years. Meeker County has been aggressive in its response to the threat of aquatic invasive species, including the hiring in June of Ariana Richardson, the county’s new aquatic invasive species coordinator.

Meeker County lake property owners, lake associations, local units of government, DNR technical assistance and DNR financial assistance work together in controlling the spreak of AIS, according to Wendy Crowell, AIS management consultant for DNR.

That’s important, invasive species find a way to other lakes via hitching a ride on watercraft and equipment anglers, boaters and others use.

“Part of the effectiveness and us managing the spread has been the inspection program,” Richardson said. “We have a very thorough inspection program and a group of inspectors. The goal with most counties is to really help facilitate the management of public waters, so through the AIS program … my role is … somebody that can help facilitate the grant process and oversee the management and lake profiles.”

Such species also have a free-floating tiny life stage that can be transported from one waterbody to another via water movement, Crowell said.

“The more invasive species you have, the less stable your fisheries are,” Richardson said. “And our native fisheries … our fishing population in the lakes, the fish that people eat and do for sports, they’re at risk. Serious risk, at the point that there’s AIS in a lake. So you’re looking at decreased numbers, decreased health … I would say, you would see that mostly impacted by like zebra mussels. They really mess with the water column and all of the (foundations) of that food chain, and so you’ll see the cascading effects with time and as the population grows.”

Zebra mussels are aquatic invasive animals that attach to hard surfaces under water and can encrust equipment such as boat motors and hulls. Swimmers and pets can cut their feet on zebra mussels attached to rocks, docks, swim rafts and ladders – among other environmental and habitat threats.

“The mussels are filter-feeders,” Richardson said. “So when you break them open … you see the whole body of the organism. And it filters that water through, and all of the microscopic organisms that live in that water column that keep the foundation … that keep the bottom tier of that food chain alive. Those get eaten up, because (the invasive species) outcompete what we naturally have.”

Eurasian watermilfoil an invasive plant, can grow up to 20 feet, creating a canopy-like structure and dense mats at the water’s surface, which inhibits water enthusiasts. It can also overtake habitat and native aquatic plants – possibly lowering diversity.

Minnesota law requires anglers and boaters to clean visible aquatic plants, mud and debris off their boat, trailer and other water-related equipment before leaving a water access or shoreland property. They also must drain water-related equipment, boat, ballast tanks, portable bait container motor, and drain bilge, livewell and baitwell by removing drain plugs before leaving water access. Lastly, they must dispose of unwanted bait like minnows, leeches, worms and fish parts in the trash.

Some invasive species are small and difficult to see, so to remove or kill them, boaters, water crafters and the like have to spray their boat and equipment with high-pressure water, rinse with hot water of about 120 degrees for at least two minutes or 140 degrees for at least 10 seconds, and dry for at least five days before moving to another water body.

“A huge concern right now in the area is starry stonewort,” said Kristin Jaquith, member of the Lake Minnie Belle Improvement Association. “Educating boaters in proper decontamination of their boats is the main way to reduce the risk of AIS. Starry stonewort, for instance, can be spread by just one tiny section of the weed entering the lake.”

Starry stonewort, bushy and bright green macro-algae with a star-shaped bulbil, is an invasive species that has appeared in Lake Koronis, which poses a concern to Meeker County lakes due to its proximity. Starry stonewort also threatens recreational, economic and ecological damage.

Richardson has some experience with AIS efforts in Stearns, Ramsey, Wright and Hennepin counties, but comparing them with Meeker County is difficult, she said.

“We don’t have a partnership set up currently with the Conservation Corps, or really a strong volunteer base, but we obviously have very good boater behavior,” Richardson said. “Meeker County has done very well as far as the citizens are a bit more adherent to really taking care of their lakes. I think there’s less of animosity between lake associations and boaters, from what I’ve seen in some other counties.”

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