Group wants to lock launch ramps in Minnesota

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Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources is often cited as having the nation’s leading boating safety programs, so it’s not surprising that lawmakers there recently passed a bill to dramatically strengthen the DNR’s ability to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species in lakes. But as DNR focuses on statewide implementation of its new program, at least one local group wants to jump ahead and install locked gates on local public launching ramps!

In what may be the nation’s most aggressive action against the spread of invasive species, Minnesota’s new law calls for more thorough boat inspections and stronger regulations aimed at preventing the transportation of invasive aquatic species, especially the highly prolific zebra mussel already discovered in some Minnesota lakes.

Essentially, the new law mandates all boats and water-related equipment, including items like portable bait containers or livewells must be drained before leaving any water access. The hull drain plug must be removed and remain out until the next launching, among other precautions to prevent the transportation of invasive species. Educating boaters of their new responsibilities is a key element of the program along with accelerated inspections at access sites. Currently, DNR employs 100 seasonal watercraft inspectors who work at public accesses around the state. Funding for additional authorized inspectors was included in the bill.

Enter a local organization called the Lake Action Alliance, a group of lakeside homeowners who want to require every boater to get inspected before being allowed access to the public launch ramps on Christmas Lake and Lotus Lake. The alliance proposes locked gates at the public access ramps. Boaters wanting to use Christmas or Lotus would first have to drive to nearby Lake Minnewashta for a boat inspection by volunteers or DNR personnel. When the boat passes inspection the owner gets a free pass-code to open the gate at Christmas or Lotus.

The goal of the Alliance to prevent zebra mussels from getting into their lakes is understandable. Native to the Black and Caspian Sea, zebra mussels were first discovered in 1988 in the Canadian waters of Lake St. Clair that connects Lake Huron and Lake Erie, transported there in the ballast water of foreign ships. By 1990, the mussels had been found in all the Great Lakes and have since spread to a myriad of connecting waterways. Trailerable boats can transport zebra mussels between inland lakes. They attach to any hard surface in freshwater, including boats, rocks, pilings, water intakes and so on. Once established, their colonies cover the entire surface of the object they're attached to.

But the idea of locked gates on public ramps raises serious concerns with others. For example, Bob Lommel, who lives a few miles from Christmas Lake and takes his boat to the public ramp at least twice a month, told KARE11 TV News in Minneapolis that a gate will essentially privatize the lake. "I think this is an attempt to make the lake their lake."

Even bigger questions, however, are legal and jurisdictional. For example, the two lakes are part of the Minnehaha Watershed District; the launch ramp on Christmas Lake is owned by the city of Sherwood but part of the lake is in the city of Chanhassen, along with Lotus Lake; and then there’s the state that oversees virtually all waters.

Steve Hirsch, director of DNR’s Division of Ecological and Water Resources, says lake associations are valuable partners and all ideas are taken seriously. So, the alliance’s proposal will be examined. But it’s not simple. For example, the new legislation may not give authority to put up gates; what governmental entity can alter a public lake access; is there a governmental agency with legal authority to take the lead (private groups can’t gate public access); how will the program initially be paid for and sustained; and other operational and legal considerations.

Minnesota is truly rich in lakes with an abundance surrounded by homeowner groups. The proposal by the alliance, if implemented, could easily lead to gates at public access ramps all over the state. The alliance cites their proposal could be replicated throughout Minnesota. How long should the “pilot program” go on before gates are installed elsewhere? What if zebra mussels are later discovered in a gated lake, brought in by, say, water fowl that are also suspected transporters? More questions than answers right now.

But, clearly what happens in Minnesota could impact public access in more than just the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

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