Becker County AIS volunteers are helping to keep the water clean

By Vivian (Makela) Sazama

Correspondent

After the very long and very cold winter, boaters are ready to hit the water. The Becker County Aquatic Invasive Species Watercraft Inspectors are ready to help boaters stop the progression of the invasive species that have already infested a number of lakes in Becker County, the majority of which are in the Detroit Lakes surrounding area.

One of the inspectors is Deb Wacker of rural Frazee, who works at the Island Lake access. 

“It’s a very busy access, partly due to four resorts on the lake. The resorts will many times direct their guests to launch at the access, especially if the boats are larger.”

Deb Wacker, Beckery County Aquatic Invasive Species Watercraft Inspector

Wacker got started inspecting in 2014, the first year that the AIS program started. Her husband, Fred had retired in 2013 from Lund Boats and needed something to do. They happened to hear on the radio an advertisement for watercraft inspectors and thought that would be a perfect fit. Fred didn’t want to attend the Saturday training at the courthouse in Detroit Lakes alone, so Wacker went along. 

The couple passed the test and the very next Monday they received a call from Big Cormorant Lake Association asking them if they would accept a position there. They agreed, thinking that they would just alternate days working there. However, the next day, a Tuesday, they received another call from the Lake Sallie Lake Association. Wacker took that position and served there for three years. 

“At that time there was a lot of road construction along Highway 59 and it began to be a real hassle to navigate to the landing so I then switched over to Island Lake and I’ve been there ever since,” she said.

One of the best things Wacker likes about her inspector job is meeting new people. 

“I get a lot of locals and it’s always nice to see them again. They know the Minnesota laws and protocol so it’s pretty much just going through the survey questions with them. However, there are also a lot of out-of-state people who stay at the resorts who don’t know the laws. Then it’s a matter of educating them and showing them how it’s all done. I love when they ask questions. It’s really rewarding when they come back the following year and they remember it all.”

Deb Wacker

Another thing she enjoys are the wildlife she gets to see with a lot of different birds and a large eagle nest nearby. 

“Every once in awhile I’ll see them swoop down and catch a fish,” said Wacker.  “I’ll see snapping turtles, deer, pelicans too.”. 

The scariest  thing she has experienced at the landing was a very large bear that came through one day. 

“That was a bit scary,” she said. “I saw him across the parking lot so I went into my car. He then proceeded to amble right on over between my car and a large tree. For the rest of that day I had to keep looking  for Wacker is when the cabin and resort owners come and thank her for doing the job and let her know they appreciate it. 

As a service to the fishermen with live bait in water, Wacker brings along a thermos of fresh water, so that if they want to keep their bait they can just drain it, which is required, and replace it with fresh water.

“Many of the returning fishing boaters now bring their own gallon of water and leave it in their vehicle until they get back in from fishing.”

Deb Wacker

Wacker’s love for her job stems back from the days growing up going to Cotton Lake summers and her dad’s business, Ole Lind Boatworks, in Detroit Lakes. 

“He made wooden boats from cedar in the 1940’s,” she said. “I used to watch him build them and they were beautiful,” she said. 

In later years her father switched to selling Lund boats, as well as sailboats, Skidoo snowmobiles, Honda motorcycles, bait and tackle, and also was the only place in town to fill scuba tanks. Because of that experience growing up, she really enjoys getting to see all kinds of watercraftt come through the landing. 

Karl Koenig has been the AIS Coordinator for Becker County since 2015, after the Minnesota Legislature issued $10 million per year for the managing and control of AIS in the state. The funding is allocated to the counties according to the number of lakes and is used to hire Watercraft Inspectors, to fund management of existing AIS in area lakes such as curly-leaf pondweed in Toad Lake and lakes near Detroit Lakes such as Big Detroit and Lake Sallie. 

Koenig said control of the spread of these invasive plants is done by lake associations and the Pelican River Watershed District. AIS Aid funds are available to these groups through a grant program that provides up to  $4,000 per year for permitted herbicide treatments. The monies are also used for outreach and education activities together with the Lake Associations and the Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District.

The primary invasive plants in Becker County are the curly pond leaf and flowering rush, both of which can be a nuisance to boaters by clogging waterways. The other invasive species in the county is the zebra mussel. 

As far as is known to date, there are 18 lakes in Becker County that contain the zebra mussel. These lakes again, are in the Pelican River Watershed District in the southwest corner of Becker County, with the exception of Pickeral Lake, east of Detroit Lakes and just north of Highway 34. 

The adult zebra mussel is approximately ¼ inch and the adult female can lay up to a million eggs, called integers. These eggs are microscopic in size and float and suspend in the water column for approximately two weeks until they start to form a hard shell. They then drop down and attach to any firm surface such as rocks, clams, leaves or docks, etc. and can clog water intakes. The shells have a flat surface on one side, which is sharp and can cut feet if walked on. 

There are no natural predators for the zebra mussel, unlike the quagga mussel in southern states, which has a rounded shape and upon which the red ear sunfish feed.

The female zebra mussels don’t start laying eggs until the water temperature reaches 54 degrees. Because the eggs are microscopic and invisible to the naked eye, every drop of water can literally have dozens of eggs in it. Thus, the importance of draining all water from watercraft, including livewells, ballasts and live bait buckets. Minnesota State law says that all water that was on a watercraft needs to be drained before leaving the landing. 

Fishermen are encouraged to keep a gallon of water in their vehicle so that when they return to the landing they can then drain their live bait and replace the water.

In the event that zebra mussels have attached themselves to a watercraft, there are several options to remove them. They can be removed manually, being careful not to cut oneself on the shells, or they can be removed at a decontamination station, which uses hot water to kill the mussels and high pressure to remove them. 

In Becker County a decontamination station is located at the boat landing on the south side of Big Detroit Lake, or they can contact Koenig at (218) 849-6438, and he will direct them to a location where he will be happy to clean off their watercraft. 

Koenig hopes that several more stations will be added this season and is looking for more employees to work them. 

The Watercraft Inspector positions are also great for Snowbirds or retirees. Interested persons can apply on the Becker County website at www.co.becker.mn.us.