Ramp gates a solution for zebra mussels?

Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune

Homeowners on Christmas Lake are pushing for a better way to protect their clean waters.

In another grass-roots attempt to stop the spread of zebra mussels from Lake Minnetonka, homeowners on nearby Christmas Lake are angling to have a code-activated gate installed on the lake’s solitary boat ramp.

“There are huge numbers of lake homeowners who don’t feel the Department of Natural Resources is doing enough,” said Joe Shneider, president of the 140-member Christmas Lake Homeowners Association.

“We can’t just do what we have done in the past, which is monitor and communicate and educate, because it’s just not enough.”

Christmas Lake is one of the cleanest, clearest lakes in the metro area because it is deep, spring-fed and gets no farm runoff.

The lake’s boat ramp on Hwy. 7 in Shorewood is a stone’s throw from Lake Minnetonka, where zebra mussels were discovered last summer. Many boaters take a ride or fish on Lake Minnetonka and then, without having to be inspected for unwanted aquatic plants and animals, go on to Christmas Lake, Shneider said.

Christmas Lake homeowners would like the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District to test the ramp gate idea.

“We would really like to see a strong statewide program put in place to control the spread of invasive species, but if the state doesn’t do that we are willing to step up and do something,” said watershed district administrator Eric Evenson.

The idea is to require boaters to go to one of several locations for an invasive species inspection, where they could get a punch code, similar to an automatic car wash, to raise the gate to the boat ramp, Evenson said.

“If we don’t do something, we are going to lose what people want to get to the lake for in the first place,” Evenson said.

Lake access part of culture

The request comes just weeks after homeowners around Fish Lake in Maple Grove sought to close its only access ramp when it wasn’t staffed for inspections.

The DNR, which would have to approve the gate experiment, has so far refused to limit lake access in the name of controlling invasive species.

“We are concerned about preventing the spread of invasive species but we need to find ways to do it that still allow people to recreate on the lakes,” said Steve Hirsch, director of the division of ecological and water resources.

“Access to lakes is kind of part of the fabric of Minnesota’s culture so I don’t think the DNR can be the sole entity that decides we are going to start trading off access to lakes,” Hirsch said.

The agency is discussing the matter with the state attorney general’s office. Hirsch declined to describe the discussions.

The DNR’s approach to aquatic invasive species has been to station inspectors at busy lakes during peak hours and educate the public about how invasive plants and animals are spread. The agency is recommending that legislators provide more funding for expanded lake inspections and enforcement.

Hirsch acknowledged that even if legislation providing more inspectors passes, lakes would not have complete inspection coverage.

Gate approach worth a shot?

At Fish Lake Regional Park, operated by Three Rivers Park District, the homeowners’ request to gate the ramp when inspectors are not present was turned down because it was inconsistent with park and DNR policies. Three Rivers officials said they welcomed more volunteer inspectors.

A gated approach at the Christmas Lake boat ramp is worth trying, said Steve McComas, owner of Blue Water Science in St. Paul who specializes in lake and watershed management. The boat ramp owned by Shorewood is the only publicly owned piece of property on Christmas Lake.

“I wouldn’t say I would like to see this on every single lake, but it certainly is a noble experiment. Why not try it and see what kind of problems we incur and see if it works?” McComas said.

Said Shneider: “We seem like a wonderful pilot because we do only have one boat ramp and the water quality is so good. If you are going to protect things, gosh, protect the best.”

Christmas Lake homeowners use the ramp to put their own boats in the water, Shneider said.

Shorewood, which operates the ramp under an agreement with the DNR, supported the watershed district’s application for a grant to pay on-site inspectors for the ramp, but the City Council has not addressed the gate idea, said city administrator Brian Heck.

“One of my questions is: Do we know for certain that there aren’t zebra mussels there already,” Heck said.

The watershed district is taking samples in the lake to find out.