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Tougher laws, closed accesses among proposals to protect Green Lake from zebra mussels

A group of fishermen, from left, Bill Scott of Spicer, Jeff Longhurst of Iowa, Andrew DeBlieck of California and Dermont Wells of Spicer (in the boat) wait for their boat to drain before they leave the boat landing area on Monday in Spicer. Tribune photos by Ron Adams

SPICER -- Transport an invasive species like zebra mussels to Green Lake, and someday you might face a possible penalty of $3,000, one year in jail and the prospect of paying restitution for the harm done.

Tougher laws, the possibility of closing public accesses to the lake, and building expensive decontamination stations were among the proposals raised by Green Lake property owners to protect the lake from zebra mussels. There was also a suggestion to require that boats be tagged with color-coded stickers when they leave infested lakes, such as Mille Lacs or Minnetonka. They would be barred from launching in other waters until a mandatory quarantine period has passed.

The proposals came from audience members after Dick Sternberg, a former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources senior fisheries biologist and popular author on all things fishing, outlined the potential risks of a zebra mussel infestation in Green Lake to some 100 people who joined at the Green Lake Bible Camp on Aug. 28.

A failure to act now, Sternberg warned, will eventually lead us to ask the question: "Why didn't somebody do something to prevent this while we had the chance?''

Sternberg believes there is a good chance of containing zebra mussels to the 50 or so water bodies now infected in the state, but admits it will be difficult and costly. He favors establishing decontamination stations where high pressure, 140-degree water would be available for boaters to sanitize their boats. The price tags for the stations range from $5,000 for portable units to as much as $200,000 for permanent, multi-lane stations.

The Green Lake Property Owners Association favors tougher legislation, and would like to employ a lobbyist and make known the need to legislators in St. Paul, said Ron Schneider, vice president of the property owners association.

Kandiyohi County Attorney Boyd Beccue was among those who argued for tougher laws. "It is treated so very lightly by the law,'' he said of the current situation.

Beccue would like to see the restrictions against transporting invasive species elevated from a misdemeanor to gross misdemeanor criminal offense. Along with the greater penalty of a possible $3,000 fine and jail time, a gross misdemeanor offense requires a defendant to appear in court.

As a misdemeanor under the current law, the defendant need only pay a fine, no different than a minor traffic infraction.

The county attorney said he'd also like to see legislation drafted requiring restitution "which the court could not waive.''

Beccue prefaced his remarks by pointing out that a zebra mussel infestation could cause great damage to the county's environment and economy. "I shutter to think what would happen to the tax base of Kandiyohi County if zebra mussels become endemic,'' he said.

Sternberg's call to focus on containing zebra mussels to the waters already infested led some in the audience to express concerns about the many "migrating'' boats that find their way to Green Lake. They called for tougher restrictions on fishing tournaments and the possibility of closing all but a couple of public accesses on the lake.

A push for tougher legislation in St. Paul is likely going to be the first goal. State Senator Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said that Sternberg's presentation "was an eye opener to say the least,'' and could catch the attention of lawmakers if presented at the capitol. He said he would work to have Sternberg give his presentation to the appropriate committees in the Legislature.

Kandiyohi County commissioner Dennis Peterson said he also favors working for change in St. Paul, but noted the pitfalls. "It is not easy to get our legislators on the same page.''

"My only fear is that it's too late,'' he said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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