Lake associations seek a voice in Crow Wing County AIS measures

County to increase wages for AIS inspectors to help with staff shortage.

Hands hold clam shells encrusted with zebra mussels.
Zebra mussels encrust clam shells in Cass Lake.
Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — Water quality is a driver for habitat and lakes area economies.

How those resources will be protected from the spread of aquatic invasive species is an ongoing discussion between Crow Wing County, residents and active lake associations and lake improvement districts.

While open water seems far in the future this week, the county’s AIS plan and how the budget will be spent were recently before county commissioners. Protecting the lake area’s water quality from invasive species is nearly fully funded by state dollars, to the tune of about $450,000 annually since 2014.

For 2023, Crow Wing County is getting $462,052 from the state to help stop aquatic invasive species from spreading. Because the county didn’t spend its full budget in 2022, there is also cash to rollover into the new year. How that money is spent or not spent was a source of controversy in late 2022. Crow Wing County fell short of meeting its own aquatic invasive species inspection goals by about 4,500 staffed hours in 2022.

This year, county officials hope an increase in pay for inspectors will help alleviate staff shortages.


The shortfall in 2022 — amounting to 28% of the nearly 16,000 hours allocated for inspections at 44 public lake accesses across the county — can be blamed on a lack of people willing to work as inspectors, officials said. This means approximately $132,500 in unspent dollars of the $486,842 in state AIS funding available for the program last year will roll over to this summer’s program, when another allocation of $462,000 will come in.

A bar chart of inspections by year.
Aquatic invasive species inspections in Crow Wing County by year.
Contributed / Crow Wing County

Each year, the county is also required to update its AIS plan. The plan was presented online on Jan. 25 with a question and answer session. Earlier this year, the county also put the plan out for a 30-day public comment period, gaining four responses.

Two of those responses were from Tony Coffey, on behalf of the Lakes and Rivers Alliance and the Whitefish Area Property Owner’s Association.

“The Crow Wing County Lakes and Rivers Alliance (LARA) has closely watched the creation of the County’s annual AIS Plans for eight years,” Coffey wrote. “We believe that the current process for the creation of the County’s AIS Prevention Plan is flawed and backward. The current process offers little opportunity for lake associations and LIDs to be directly involved in Plan creation. The County more recently offered lake associations the opportunity to react to the Plans but the lake associations are not directly part of the development of the annual Plan. This has caused the annual Plans developed by the County over the last eight years to have few modifications and are the direct result of limited input from outside resources.”

Coffey was also critical of the AIS plan setting aside $5,000 to start a Starry Stonewort Rapid Response Fund, calling it “woefully inadequate,” adding one lake association was spending over $125,000 in 2020 for what he described as limited efforts to treat and control starry stonewort.

Some of the most common invasive species found in the lakes area include Eurasian watermilfoil and zebra mussels, with spiny waterflea and starry stonewort becoming more prevalent.

Coffey pointed to the county plans for the carryover funds including spending $45,000 for new signs and kiosks at 17 county owned boat landings and $25,000 for a new portable decontamination unit. Coffey stated LARA’s position is that any carryover funds in excess of 5% of planned expenditures should go to offset costs of expanded inspection hours requested by lake associations and lake improvement districts.

“Crow Wing County’s direct financial contribution to the 2023 AIS Prevention Plan is approximately $14,600 representing 20 percent of the Environmental Services Coordinators salary and benefits,” Coffey stated. “However, the 2023 Plan allocates almost $70,000 of the State of MN AIS grant monies to salaries and other expenses associated with coordination and supplies for the Plan … As noted earlier, lake associations and LIDs in Crow Wing County spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat and control AIS. Those same organizations budgeted over $110,000 in 2022 for expanded coverage.”


Coffey said short of an increased hourly wage, the county has no formal plan to improve hiring efforts, likely resulting in fewer inspection hours again. Coffey also stated the lake associations believe the county should provide more financial resources of its own toward coordination and supplies, with more funding dollars then available for increased inspection hours.

Jessica Shea, Land Services operations manager, told Crow Wing County Board members Feb. 14 that about 75% of funds will be spent on the inspection program. Shea reported 10% of the county’s overall budget is for staffing salaries, which is comparable to surrounding counties.

“One of our big changes this year or increases to our budget is increasing our inspector wages $2 an hour. A first year inspector would make $17 an hour.”

In 2022, a first year inspector made $15 an hour. In 2023, a more experienced inspector would make $18 an hour and a lead inspector would make $19 an hour.

“We are hoping that this increase will help our staffing issues that we have had in the last couple years,” Shea said, adding the plan was to increase grants given to the lakes associations for starry stonewort and Eurasion milfoil.

A pie chart of budgeted expenses and actual expenses in 2022.
The shortfall in 2022 — amounting to 28% of the nearly 16,000 hours allocated for inspections at 44 public lake accesses across the county — can be blamed on a lack of people willing to work as inspectors, officials said.<br/>
Contributed / Crow Wing County

John Forney, past president of the Whitefish Area Property Owner’s Association and current president of the National Loon Center, said he’s been involved in water quality issues for the past 23 years. Forney provided written comments to the plan and also addressed the county board during its Feb. 14 meeting.

“If we ignore or seriously underfund efforts to minimize AIS, we may lose an asset that cannot be replaced,” Forney wrote. “Without high quality waters, Crow Wing County will suffer greatly — perhaps not immediately, but without a plan, input and cooperation of the lake associations and LIDs, and significant funding, our waters will become a liability rather than an incredible asset. The need can no longer be ignored. Protecting our waters is infinitely less expensive than trying to salvage them.”

A man stands at a podium to talk to the Crow Wing County Board members.
John Forney speaks to the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, regarding the county's aquatic invasive species plan during a meeting in the County Board room in the historic courthouse in Brainerd.
Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

In speaking before the board, Forney said his basic concern was the trend of losing inspections to catch invasive species and the planned increase in wages was going to be eaten up by inflation. Forney proposed the county look at its plan with a little more vision and with more information from the lakes associations that have raised their hands to participate instead of reacting to plans and being handed a bill at the end of the summer for considerable amounts of money.


“And, frankly, we are tapped out,” Forney said. “We are not going to be able to present anything else in terms of funding. And at some point it’s going to impact the value of properties that generate so much for the taxbase.”

Pie chart of the aquatic invasive species budget for 2023.
A Pie chart outlines the aquatic invasive species budget for 2023 for Crow Wing County.<br/>
Contributed / Crow Wing County

Gary Griffin, Land Services director, said the AIS plan is probably the most vetted plan of any ordinance the county oversees. Griffin said he believed the county was a good partner with lake associations and lake improvement districts.

“We’re always open to listening and working with our partners out there in the community.” Griffin said.

Commissioner Jon Lubke, who represents the northwest section of the county with District 2 including Nisswa, Crosskale, Pequot Lakes, said the county has done a good job of trying to get those funds out there and the lake associations have really stepped up.

“This has been kind of a partnership between all of us. And I feel really bad. And I don't know, I don't know how to explain, I don't think we need to explain, but that it didn't happen last year,” Lubke said. “We left a lot of dollars on the table. We need to get out and get those inspections done. And that is important to this county because water is the economic engine for this county.”

Lubke said lake associations are asking for more inspection hours and paying out of their own pockets even after they pay taxes for the county. He said he hoped what the county was putting in place was going to help, but he didn’t know if it was a fix.

“I’m looking for ideas, just like the lake associations, just like we are,” Lubke said, because maintenance and education are going to keep the water clean for years to come.

Griffin said if in April the county is already struggling for employees, they need to be more flexible and come back to see if the wages need to be adjusted even more or the county needs to be creative in trying to draw more people to the work.


“If this works, great. If it doesn't, we need to be back in front of you know, with some different ideas maybe sooner than just waiting for the whole year to evolve,” Griffin said.

The County Board voted to adopt the AIS plan.

The county’s 2023 AIS plan includes spending

  • $505,283 on watercraft inspections, allocating 16,155 inspection hours on 43 public access landings in the county. Most of this budget, $347,211 is expected to cover inspector wages and fringe
  • $43,581 for decontaminations at the joint maintenance highway facility in Crosslake — for about 423 hours starting Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. It is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
  • $65,300 on new tablets, cases, sponges, personnel manual, timecard system, updated signs and outreach materials, etc. 
  • $23,521 on DNR and county initiated training. 
  • $58,257 for environmental services coordinators’ salaries and benefits with 80% coming from AIS aid funds and 20% from county funds. 
  • $11,618 for 423 hours of level 2 inspectors at Crosslake, 954 mobile decontamination hours and payment to Ruth Lake for decontamination station operation. 
  • $28,000 for general maintenance/supplies for the Crosslake unit and mobile decontamination unit and a new mobile decontamination unit. 
  • $10,200 or up to $300 lake association grants per lake for AIS research, education materials for schools, youth groups and civic organizations. 
  • $32,500 and  up to $3,500 for each eligible lake for DNR approved treatment and related surveys by licensed experts for milfoil treatment. 

2022 actual Crow Wing County expenses for AIS

  • $305,961 on inspection and county staff coordination.
  • $62,495 on expanded inspection coverage. 
  • $12,000 on education/awareness. 
  • $20,500 on milfoil treatment.
  • $12,529 on decontamination. 
  • $2,846 on early AIS monitoring detection. 

Inspection locations

Aquatic invasive species Inspection locations include sites on: Bay, Big Trout, Borden, Camp, Clamshell, Clearwater, Crooked, Cross Lake (southwest and Corps of Engineers), Crow Wing, East Fox, Edward, Emily, Gilbert, Gladstone, Gull, Horseshoe, Hubert, Lower Cullen, Lower Hay, Lower Mission, Lower South Long, Mille Lacs, Nisswa, North Long (at 371 and Merrifield bays), Ossawinnamakee, Pelican (at Breezy Point Resort, city ramp, Jones and Halverson bays), Platte, Rabbit, Rice, Round, Ruth, Serpent (east and west), Sibley, Upper Hay, Upper Mission, Upper South Long, Whitefish, White Sand lakes.

Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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