Water quality and aquatic invasive species (AIS), especially in the Whitefish Chain, were the topics discussed when the state House Legacy Fund Committee visited the area Wednesday, Sept. 11.
The committee was on a statewide tour to hear presentations from Legacy Fund Grant recipients to assess the success of past funded programs as well as the possibilities of future programs. One stop was at Ideal Town Hall to hear from members of the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association (WAPOA). State Reps. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, and Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, are on the House committee.
“It was an amazing tour that showed legislators the good that has come of Legacy dollars being used already and the possibility for Legacy dollars in the future,” Ward said.
Dave Fischer, WAPOA president, told the committee that the Whitefish Chain includes 14 lakes covering 14,200 acres with 119 miles of shoreline, 3,700 parcels of property and 2,700 property owners. The chain has seven public accesses to the lake and more than 18 private and unmarked accesses.
Those numbers are important because Fischer and Tom Watson, WAPOA vice president, focused parts of their presentation on the impact that diminished water quality and AIS could have on the local and statewide economy.
“The chain is the economic driver of northern Crow Wing County,” Fischer said.
Watson said local expenditures on rentals, gasoline, boats, motors and bait equal approximately $110 million. Almost half of this is during the summer months alone, meaning lake tourism is important economically.
“That’s an enormous impact on a state like this,” Watson said.
Fischer said WAPOA is the largest lake association in the state with 1,000 member families, also in cooperation with the Pine River Watershed Alliance. Fischer explained the efforts on behalf of concerned group members to prevent or limit AIS infestations and spread.
Efforts included $500,000 to preserve water quality, a lake management plan that includes water quality samples, an AIS response plan in case Eurasian water milfoil is ever found in the chain, and 2,600 hours of access monitoring. Fischer said these efforts would be difficult without grants like the Legacy Fund.
Watson presented the difficulties the Whitefish Chain faces, as well as possible solutions.
“I’m always amazed by how many folks spent the day before on Gull, which is totally infested, Mille Lacs, Minnetonka, the Mississippi River — those are our worst enemies, those are the spreaders that we have to be careful for. So, AIS is a huge threat to us,” Watson said.
Among Watson’s management ideas were efforts to reduce apathy among local units of governments and residents, to increase a sense of shared responsibility between all parties involved, mandatory decontamination of boats and docks, stricter administration of fishing tournaments to keep participants from fishing in one lake and then another the next day without decontamination, and reduction of available lake accesses to make monitoring easier.
Watson also touched on water quality. He said local units of governments within Crow Wing County have given 18 variances to property owners allowing them to develop below the ordinary high water mark on lake property. He said this could increase runoff into lakes. Watson also said he was unsure it was legal since local units of government are usually only able to make laws stricter than state laws, not more lenient.
Watson also suggested that penalties for AIS violations aren’t harsh enough. He said the penalty for AIS violations is only $100, compared to $2,000 in other states. He compared this to the fines involved with hunting out of season or keeping more fish than allotted.
“Are water resources finally at the point where we need to put them on the parallel with public safety, roads, human services, education? Some of us think we are already there,” Watson said.
Asked by members of the committee what observable difficulties could be caused by AIS, Watson said swimmers in the Whitefish Chain will likely someday need to wear water shoes to protect their feet since zebra mussels have found their way into the lakes. He said if Eurasian water milfoil were to ever spread to the Whitefish Chain, it could choke off bays and channels to popular boating activities, including water-skiing. In short, AIS could have a severe impact on the attractiveness of the lake.
Ward said the presentation from WAPOA was eye-opening.
“WAPOA has been remarkable and very proactive and very wonderful in engaging and fighting, not only through education sources but also financially, and if every lake association in the state was a WAPOA we would probably have made some significant impact here,” Ward said.
“The thing that is intriguing and always interesting is the amount of work the lake associations, especially WAPOA, put into the prevention of spreading of AIS,” Ward said in a later interview. “Because I’m familiar with this area I’ve seen their advertisements in the paper. They do a very good job of educating and then also a very good job of volunteering to put their words into action.”