The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District is about to make what it says is one of its most important—and potentially expensive—decisions in recent memory.
Citing internal study and consensus that invasive species are the No. 1 threat to the watershed’s long-term vitality and health, the district is considering taking a lead role in the fight to prevent the spread of aquatic hitchhikers—something that has historically been the Department of Natural Resource’s responsibility.
“We would like to see the DNR take a very strong, very active role in this, but we don’t feel the state has the resources to protect our resources—nor do they have the staff,” said Eric Evenson, the MCWD’s top administrator.
A changing focus
The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) is a local unit of government funded primarily by tax dollars that is tasked with protecting bodies of water in 27 cities across a broad swath of the west metro. Although the district garners much less attention than city councils and school boards, it has sweeping powers to clean up waterways.
In the past, it’s tended to use that authority for projects that prevent pollutants from entering local lakes and creeks—as it did with recent property acquisitions, most recently in Hopkins and .
But representatives of the MCWD have been appearing in front of city councils, visiting with lake associations and meeting with conservation districts throughout the watershed in recent weeks to gauge feelings about ramping up efforts to combat aquatic invasive species.
With new infestations being confirmed each summer and escalating costs to control and manage them, the district says its time to examine a new approach.
The watershed district has not yet developed a specific plan of attack to combat invasive species and does not have a price tag or manpower commitment. But at a Nov. 1 meeting in Hopkins, Evenson warned that it would be “very expensive.” He estimated then that it would cost the owner of a $280,000 home about a quarter more per month increase in property taxes to raise an additional $1 million for the fight.
Jim Japs, who heads the DNR’s ecosystem protection section, is careful to neither support nor oppose the MCWD’s plan but he does worry about elements of the district’s proposal—specifically off-site inspections of boats before entering the water.
Concerns like those are why the watershed district is taking the discussion to other entities within its boundaries.
“This is an expensive process to go through,” Evenson said. “We want to talk with our communities and ask if this makes sense for the watershed to keep working on—if we’re heading down the right road here. It’s not something the watershed is going to be able to do on its own.”
Expressions of support
Many cities are already behind the effort. Hopkins unanimously approved a resolution backing the idea at the Nov. 1 meeting where Evenson spoke.
“I believe somebody has to step up and deal with the issue before it just gets completely out of hand,” Hopkins Mayor Gene Maxwell said.
Shorewood is one of the most ardent supporters of the idea, and the City Council also passed a formal resolution backing a watershed district fight against aquatic invasive species.
“The MCWD represents a larger area of impact, possesses the staff resources to address AIS on a broader scale and can leverage greater financial resources and partnerships that will be necessary in dealing with AIS,” city leaders wrote in a letter sent to other cities around Lake Minnetonka.
In all, 11 communities have so far backed the watershed district’s proposal, said Telly Mamayek, watershed district spokeswoman. The watershed district anticipates responses from two more communities and plans to speak to third community Nov. 21.
Yet the reception has been more mixed in other places. One of the organizations that the MCWD is counting on heavily is the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District—one of the largest and wealthiest conservation districts in the state.
The conservation district has formally approved the watershed district's invasive species efforts. But even though it and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District say they are on the same team and have many of the same long-term goals, there’s friction between the two groups over the watershed district’s proposal.
Dan Baasen, who represents Wayzata on the conservation district’s board, said the district wants to ensure the appropriate amount of attention is given to Lake Minnetonka—which makes up about 70 percent of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.
“We have some concerns,” Bassen said. “To be honest, a lot of the discussion has been about the spread of invasive species. We’re concerned about treating (invasive species) and what we can do for Lake Minnetonka.”
The MCWD stresses it has no interest in attempting a large-scale eradication effort—specifically when it comes to zebra mussels. Instead, the MCWD says its focus will be on curbing the spread of all invasive species across the entire district.
“We are not going to be solely focused on Lake Minnetonka,” Evenson said. “There are 128 other lakes in the watershed.”
Wayzata’s City Council has showed guarded support for the idea of empowering the MCWD to lead the fight against zebra mussels and other invasive species but chose to forgo passing a formal resolution backing the plan until city leaders have a chance to conduct more in-depth talks with the DNR and LMCD.
“Before we commit, we want to know how those organizations feel about it,” Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox said.
So far, Mound is the only community that has formally indicated it doesn't support the district's invasive species efforts, although Minnetonka and Medina have indicated they aren't taking an “official” position, Mamayek said.
Japs, the DNR’s top invasive species administrator, said the state has worked closely for years on invasive species efforts with a broad range of local and regional agencies—including the watershed district. But he does worry about some aspects broached as possibilities. There’s no precedent for inspecting boats outside of boat ramps, for example, and gating off public access to waterways is rare.
“Nobody has really put together anything saying they were going to gate accesses and require off-site inspections,” Japs said. “That’s something unique and something we’ve pointed out to the watershed district, lake associations and others—that there would need to be some legal authority to require people to go to an off-site location.”
Still, Japs conceded the state can’t concentrate resources on a specific geographical area the way a watershed district like the MCWD can.
“The DNR is taking a leadership role on a statewide level, and it’s hard for us to drill down and do what a watershed district can do on a local level,” Japs said. “We’re interested in working with local units of government that can provide some services that complement what we’re doing on a state-wide level.”
Meanwhile, the MCWD’s board of directors has authorized the hiring of a full-time aquatic invasive species specialist to serve as a liaison with the DNR, lake associations, units of local government and the general public. Recruitment for the position is currently under way.
The MCWD is already involved in a wide variety of efforts to quell invasive species—including carp removal, curly leaf research, pond weed, assistance with watercraft inspections at public boat ramps and a slew of education programs for kids and adults.
The watershed district also worked closely with the DNR this past summer on the state’s “Save the Summers” campaign, which was aimed at raising awareness about how boaters can do their part to stop the spread of invasive species.
The MCWD's board of directors will discuss the idea at length at their monthly meeting in early December, where a vote on whether to proceed with the plan is expected.
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