Zebra mussel research project a long shot for Legacy fundsby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Zebra mussels have already invaded dozens of Minnesota lakes and rivers, and there's interest in using a certain type of bacteria to kill the invaders without hurting native plants and animals.
Lake property owners think a project exploring that possibility should qualify for money from the state's Legacy Amendment, even though use of the bacteria is still in the research stage.
But it likely won't. A $350,000 research project on Zequanox, the name given to the product containing the zebra mussel-killing bacteria, landed at the bottom of a list of projects being considered for up to $96 million that will be available next year as part of the Legacy's Outdoor Heritage Fund.
Among written comments submitted on each proposal, Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council members wrote "ineligible" and "pure research not appropriate" in evaluating the Zequanox project. When Minnesota voters approved the constitutional amendment in 2008, they didn't say the money should go to research, said Bill Becker, the council's executive director.
"If you look at the statute, it talks about funding things that directly protect, restore and enhance," he said. "The result of the expenditure must be to restore or protect, so it raises a question about the constitutionality of doing research, especially research that's not necessarily applied but exploratory."
The Douglas County Lakes Association on Thursday will try to make their pitch to the council anyway.
"It's our lakes, and we only have one chance. If you let zebra mussels spread to everything we'll never be able to afford to get rid of them," said Bonnie Huettl, the association's president.
INVADER HERE TO STAY
Zebra mussels arrived in the Great Lakes region in the late 1980s, likely on cargo ships. They've since spread quickly and are even more prolific in Wisconsin and Michigan than in Minnesota.
In the interactive map below, the shaded counties all have at least one body of water infested with zebra mussels. Click on those areas for details, as provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The mussels, which are often the size of a fingernail, clog water intake pipes and cling to docks and boats. They can also interrupt the food chain, feeding on plankton and crowding out native mussel species. And the sharp edges of dead shells can cut swimmers' feet.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has made efforts to slow their spread by educating the public and requiring boaters to drain and clean their boats when exiting infested lakes or rivers. But trying to get rid of the mussels after they're already established hasn't been very successful.
Gary Montz, an invasive species researcher for the DNR, recently told members of the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council the story of an eradication effort on a Nebraska lake. A contractor was hired to kill the mussels in 2008 and 2009 using copper sulfate, which also killed thousands of fish.
"While they thought they got them, they discovered more zebra mussels in 2010," Montz said.
Another technique — draining lakes enough so that all the water left freezes during the winter, killing the mussels — has proven to be somewhat effective, but there are also limits to that, Montz said.
"Most of our lakes don't have water control structures," he said.
POISONING JUST THE INVADERS
Montz said lab tests have shown Zequanox, made from a dead version of a common type of soil bacteria, is safe for non-target organisms, including native mussels. It successfully kills zebra and quagga mussels, another invader, but hasn't been tested in a lake environment.
According to Marrone Bio Innovations, the company working to bring Zequanox to the market, the product could be ready for commercial use on water intake pipes later this year. But more research is needed before it could be used in other settings.
Huettl, of the Douglas County Lakes Association, said her group approached the company and the scientist who discovered Zequanox about trying it in a lake setting.
"Their focus has always been on electric plants, but we know there's an opportunity to expand this," Huettl said, adding that she understands some people will question the possible use of public funds to research a private company's product. "What we're trying to do is just move a little faster."
To get the ball rolling, Huettl's group started looking for ways to finance a research project that would explore using Zequanox on lakes. Huettl acknowledges that it would likely be far too costly and difficult to treat an entire lake, but she said it would be worth knowing whether Zequanox could be used to target a particular area of a lake.
"This is the only tool in the toolbox at this point," she said.
INVASIVE SPECIES PROJECTS ABSENT FROM LEGACY LIST
The Zequanox project is the only proposal among 40 before the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council dealing specifically with aquatic invasive species.
Council members took note of that at a meeting in August and decided to keep open the possibility of setting aside some of next year's funds to focus on responding to the invasive species threat.
More discussion on that will come at the council's Sept. 20 meeting, when they'll finalize the list of projects to recommend for funding.
Lake property owners and others concerned about zebra mussels in Minnesota lakes said they hope to find funding somewhere for Zequanox research.
"Minnesota has been a leader in so many things, so it just makes sense that we would lead on this as well, said Lois Lindquist, executive director of Minnesota Waters.
Lindquist said she understands why those distributing Legacy funds might object to spending money on research, but she said the need has been demonstrated.
"There's a lot of interest, so I'm just looking forward to learning if this isn't the right location for a funding application, where is the right location?" she asked. "We have this incredible challenge."