Life at the access: Aquatic invasive species inspectors provide insight into their work
DNR and county employees spend their days at Minnesota public water accesses checking for weeds and invasive species and educating boaters.
CROW WING COUNTY — If you’ve used a public lake access in the last 30 years, you’ve probably talked to a watercraft inspector.
They ask you a few questions for their surveys like, “Where was your boat last? How long was your boat out of the water?” or, if you’re leaving the lake, “How long was your boat in the water? Where are you going next?”
The questions may seem tedious, but they are one part in the goal of slowing the spread of aquatic invasive species in beloved Minnesota waters.
“We’re trying to make sure that people are in compliance when they’re coming to the lake and when they’re leaving the lake,” said Chad Burback, law compliance representative and AIS trainer for the Department of Natural Resources. “It’s illegal to transport aquatic vegetation; it’s illegal to transport infested water. That’s where the whole plug law comes in.”
Since 2010, Minnesota law requires that a watercraft’s drain plug be removed before and during transportation. The implementation of the “pull the plug” law, as well modifications to it and additional laws passed in 2011 aimed at preventing the spread of AIS, led to a change in the inspection program.
Rather than just being the “weed police,” as Burback remembers people calling them, and removing aquatic vegetation from boats and trailers, inspectors ensure that drain plugs are being pulled in accordance with the law and inform boaters about their efforts.
“Now we realize this is how zebra mussels and spiny water fleas and even plant fragments are getting spread,” Burback said. “That’s when they came out with these.”
“These” are the decontamination stations, essentially just hot water pressure washers. Level two inspectors, like Burback, man the stations.
Not only are they helpful in rinsing off boats that come out of the water with lots of weeds, but the hot water ensures that anything else that may spread by living on the surface of the boat or trailer is killed.
“For instance, the zebra mussels thing, which is kind of what they’re invented for, is when (watercraft) has been sitting in the water for 24 hours or more,” Burback said. “There’s a risk that the veligers, which are the juvenile zebra mussels - microscopic - have attached to their boat. In that case, I take basically a garden hose attachment - I just go around the boat, flush it with hot water.”
The initial inspection, though, begins with the survey questions.
“The questions are all the same, whether you’re a volunteer, whether you work for the county, whether you work for the DNR,” Burback said. “And that’s to determine, is it a risk for you to launch?”
The DNR website says there are 26 staffed decontamination units in Minnesota. While there are some permanent sites, including one in Crosslake, most units are mobile.
The idea is to have decontamination stations at busier accesses on busier days, but that doesn’t get every boat. The hope is to make the units more accessible and decontamination a regular part of every boater's routine.
“We have to clean, drain, dry. But, if you’re worried about spreading (AIS) or you think you may be at risk, ‘Hey, I’ve been in the water too long,’ or ‘God, my boat is so covered in weeds, I’m never going to be able to pick them off,’ being able to find a decontamination unit is huge,” Burback said.
The DNR website lets boaters see where decontamination stations will be up to two weeks in the future. They are also handing out stickers with a QR code directing people to that website to help spread the word.
Burback hopes people will use the resource and make decontamination a part of their schedule. If they’re traveling to another lake or heading to put their boat in the water, he wants people to check and see if there is a unit on their way or nearby.
The watercraft inspection program has changed a lot since it began in 1992. Burback worked as an intern for the DNR in 2008 and 2009, before the plug law was in place. At the time, not many lakes had zebra mussels, the DNR didn’t have decontamination units and inspectors had a more limited role.
Then, when Burback joined the DNR in 2015, he faced the early pushback against the stricter AIS laws.
From 2015 to now, I think it's night and day.
“In 2015, there was a little more of an attitude,” Burback said. “‘Oh, why do I gotta pull my drain plug. I never used to pull it, you know, for 50 years,’ and ‘What does it matter if I take a plant from this lake and put it in the other lake, aren’t they all the same? Isn’t it the ducks and turtles bringing it back and forth?’”
Even then, Burback was quick to fulfill his duty as an educator. He’d inform boaters that ducks preen themselves, so they don’t spread AIS; and turtles don’t move fast enough from lake to lake to spread them either.
He would tell them the DNR has maps showing infestations spreading along major highways and how AIS usually get discovered at public accesses.
“We used to hear a lot more of that,” Burback said. “From 2015 to now, I think it’s night and day.”
While Burback still encounters the occasional grump, he said growing awareness means he actually gets thanked all the time now. People are happy that he, and the state as a whole, are working to keep the water clean.
At the core of the inspection program is education. The hope is that enough people are educated about AIS and prevention so not as many inspectors will be needed.
“It’s like getting in a car and putting on a seat belt. It’s the same thing,” Burback said. “Cleaning off vegetation, draining your water, it’s the law. We want people to just do this on their own.”
But until education and awareness are more widespread, people are needed to monitor public accesses. Burback is just one of many inspectors in the lakes area and across the state. It takes a lot of manpower to staff all the major accesses.
That’s where people like Raymond DeZurik come in.
DeZurik is a watercraft inspector employed by Crow Wing County. He works at the Clamshell Lake access on Ruttger Road. This is his seventh summer as an inspector, and he didn’t mention stopping any time soon.
“I love it,” DeZurik said. “You’re protecting the lakes; you’re doing something. Number two, I have diabetes, and I’m a little fluffy, (so it) gets me a lot of exercise during the summer.”
People like DeZurik, willing to sit at an access on weekends to cover areas that may not otherwise be staffed, help with the mission of slowing the spread of AIS. Often, people find that the job is more fun than its description makes it seem. Some read a book, watch movies or, in DeZurik’s words, watch “God’s TV set.”
“(There are) fox here, I’ve had deer walk within 10 feet of me. Just about 40 feet from here I had a porcupine,” DeZurik said. “The things I see. I mean, it’s amazing.”
Those interested in seeing turkey vultures send a bald eagle into the lake, another sight of DeZurik’s, or looking for an extra weekend job might find just what they're looking for as a watercraft inspector.
Burback thinks more participation in the DNR’s volunteer training could help get more accesses monitored
“There’s a lot of really small lakes that maybe even on a weekend only get half a dozen people,” Burback said. “To pay somebody to go sit there, it’s expensive.”
It’s like getting in a car and putting on a seat belt. It’s the same thing. Cleaning off vegetation, draining your water, it’s the law. We want people to just do this on their own.
He would like to see more lake associations and lake residents get involved. He suggested lake residents rotate weekends for people to man the access and help educate incoming boaters.
Other volunteer programs, like Starry Trek, where people across the state search for starry stonewort, help get people involved and slow the spread of AIS.
There is still progress to be made in staffing, education and attitudes, but Burback is glad to see his and others’ efforts are paying off.
“It is working. I feel like the spread has slowed down,” Burback said. “When zebra mussels came into this area, it was quick. Every year you were reading about a dozen new lakes. We don’t see the new infestation emails as often. So, I feel like it’s making a difference.”
For Burback, the difference isn’t just professional. It’s personal, too.
“I have a 4-year-old child,” Burback said. “And I hope that all these lakes aren’t choked up by weeds and invasive species by the time she’s old enough to enjoy it.”
Megan Buffington, Echo Journal intern, may be reached at 218-855-5854 or firstname.lastname@example.org . She is a 2021 Pequot Lakes High School graduate who attends the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.