WORTHINGTON - So, what is a zebra mussel? It is an exotic species that looks a lot like a small, striped clam. They are not native to this area and are one of the most tracked aquatic invasive species in Minnesota.

This little clam-like creature can have a big effect on lakes in our area. First, they have very sharp shells that can cut your feet if you step on them while swimming or wading in the lake. They also filter about one liter of water each per day and the result of this is that many lakes see water clarity improve immensely.

They can change the way the lake’s food chain operates and their long-term effect is still evolving. They grow in clusters that cover boat lifts and outboard motor lower units if they are in the water while stored on a boat lift. They can also clog up water intakes at power plants and municipal water supply intakes.

There is no debate they are bad for a lake. They are spreading across Minnesota slowly but surely. Most of this transport is thought to be a result of pleasure and fishing boats moving from one lake to another without completely draining and drying the boat or trailer. Veligers, the larva stage of a zebra mussel, are likely being transported unknowingly.

The efforts to slow the spread of these invasives is heating up a debate that has the potential to erupt badly.

In recent years, an informational campaign using signs, advertisements and classes worked to educate recreational boaters and fishers to remove their boat drain plugs and be sure all of the water from live wells, baitwells and other spots in a boat that could hold water are empty. They also want all boaters to visually inspect their boats and remove any vegetation that might hitchhike on the boat to another lake.

All of this felt pretty good, but if one in 100 boaters do not comply, invasives can and do continue to spread to other lakes.

Now, some lake associations are raising the bar. In Wright County, they now require that before you can put your boat in a small number of designated lakes, you have to drive to a regional inspection station and get an inspection and a sticker before you can unload your boat into these designated waters. This is causing some real heartburn for some users, especially if you have to drive 20 miles in the opposite direction to get the inspection done and then drive 20 miles back to enjoy your day on the water.

This would have to be done every day you use these bodies of water. The lakes in question already have some invasive species in them, but the inspection is touted as a way to keep out any new invasive species.

The other heartburn results from the fact that when the boat leaves these waters, they do not get an exit inspection to insure the current invasives don’t move to yet another new water. So, this effort protects these few designated waters from new infestations but does nothing to stop the spread of invasives to other lakes. Kind of dumb thinking in my opinion.

I am all for protecting Minnesota’s waters, but in fact stopping the spread of invasive species in Minnesota is almost impossible. There are other ways for these creatures to move, and with 10,000 lakes and the highest number of registered boaters per capita. Control is an illusion at best.

With the way these inspections are being handled in Wright County, they are protecting three to four lakes and leaving the rest of Minnesota’s lakes to fend for themselves. If you are going to inspect on the way in, you need to inspect on the way out if that lake already has invasives.

What is happening - and some think this is the end game of these inspections anyway - is that boat traffic is being directed away from the lakes in question. This goes a long way to making public waters in Minnesota feel more like private lakes for the primary benefit of the property owners that live on its shores.

Needless to say, this issue/challenge/quest/fight or debate is far from over.

Lake Sarah in Murray County now has zebra mussels. The Iowa Great Lakes has zebra mussels. How long will it be til all of the lakes have zebra mussels? And what will the long-term changes to these lakes be?

Only time will tell. All I know for sure is that between now and then, there will be lots of opinions as to how to handle the situtition. Right now, nobody has the answer for sure.