Leelanau News and Events

The Latest From Lake Leelanau’s Milfoil Battlezone

By Emily Tyra | July 19, 2021

The aggressive invasive weed Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM) has taken root in Lake Leelanau, and as waterfront property owners and those who love and benefit from the lake grapple with the threat, another battle has emerged: the matter of who will pay to fight it — and how.

Commissioner Debra Rushton boiled it down at the Leelanau Board of Commissioners’ executive session last week: “We all agree it’s an issue on the lake that needs to be addressed. Some want the whole county taxed, some want the businesses taxed, others just want the riparians taxed. Nobody is happy but everyone wants the problem to go away by a magic wand.”

To help the commissioners better determine what resources are needed to attack EWM, Chairman Will Bunek and County Administrator Chet Janik recommended last week that the county hire a certified professional watershed manager from the firm Restorative Lake Sciences (RLS) in Spring Lake to conduct a “comprehensive lake improvement feasibility study” for Lake Leelanau.

“This will give us a better blueprint going forward in terms of solutions and costs,” he says.

The commissioners voted 6-1 to accept the recommendation. Pending official approval of $12,000 in special projects funding at the regular meeting tomorrow (July 20), Janik tells the Leelanau Ticker the feasibility study will be completed by August 20.

“We will have an open public forum the following week to share and discuss the results before the board makes a decision.”

And time is of the essence. Since Lake Leelanau Lake Association Biologist Brian Price first discovered infestations of EWM in Lake Leelanau in 2019, the remediation efforts have included choking out the weed with lake-bottom burlap blankets and diver-assisted harvesting. Big picture, Price says, “There is a growth curve and we caught it early, and we think we have a very narrow window to bring it under control without the use of chemicals.”

He continues, “If we let it go, that becomes impossible and there will be a lot of damage to the reputation of the lake, the property values, and to everybody’s use of the lake.”

So far, combating the current EWM-infested sites in South Lake Leelanau and south of the Narrows has fallen solely on the shoulders of the LLLA nonprofit, in partnership with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians (GTB). To date, LLLA raised and spent more than $100,000 to remove four acres of EWM, which, according to LLLA President Tom Hiatt, came from just a handful of donors. The GTB also requested and received a $130,000 grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, awarded over three years. While “there is one more year of funding from GTB,” alerts Price, “we need still need to fund the third year from our end.”

Hiatt has expressed that as a small volunteer-based nonprofit, LLLA “is tapped out,” with others on the nonprofit board saying it’s unrealistic, unpredictable, and inequitable to continue to rely on donations of just a few in maintaining one of the county’s most precious assets.

Considering this, members of the LLLA asked the county commissioners this spring to consider adopting a resolution to establish an independent Lake Leelanau Preservation Board. Once formed, the lake board would be authorized to create a special assessment district — likely lakefront property owners — to finance and control threats to Lake Leelanau such as EWM.

Since May, commissioners, community members, and Lake Leelanau riparian owners  — both members of the LLLA and otherwise — have hotly debated the authorization of a lake board.

Says Janik, “I’m starting my tenth year [as administrator], and I can’t think of another topic that has received so much feedback. What emerged, number one, was cost. Two, whether limits could be put on the board — for example a 10-year sunset clause — and a cap on the amount charged.”

Janik says those pieces were considered in the original resolution, but “the way the Michigan laws are written that is not possible.”

Nancy Popa, a South Lake Leelanau resident, LLLA board member, and lake board proponent, says, “Some community members are uneasy about the uncertainty of the costs involved. The feasibility study will go a long way to provide certainty.”

But the sentiment among those most strongly opposed, including Doug Rexroat of Lake Leelanau, is that the study is “just a pinkie promise…and a tiny slice of the picture.” He’d like clarification on other ambiguous costs once the lake board is formed, maintaining that “there are unpredictable costs…such as lake board fees and other categories of board expenses.” 

There is also concern that the potential lake board could abuse its authority and not take into consideration citizen input.

Popa offers: “We view the lake board as a group of concerned community members taking care of the lake they love and trust that operating under the provisions of the State statute, [it] will perform admirably, as more than 100 other lake boards in Michigan are now doing.”

The potential preservation board is not off the table entirely, Janik tells the Leelanau Ticker, though county council Timothy Perrone notes, “that the county would be reluctant to proceed in the face of [current riparian owners’] opposition.”

He adds, “be that as it may, we haven’t heard of alternative proposals.”

Commissioners Patricia Soutas-Little and Gwenne Allgaier commend LLLA for their effort thus far and agree it’s a county-wide problem.

Allgaier says, “We can’t pretend this is just a riparian owners’ of Lake Leelanau issue. It effects the entire county, as we are a tourist-based economy.” She says the county cannot risk “becoming a place where people say, ‘the lakes are all weed-bound, but it’s still a pretty place to go. Just don’t plan on going in the water.’”

Says Soutas-Little, “We need a comprehensive strategy for going after this — and whether or not a board is established, find a solution so this cost can be spread fairly. Can the county fund it?”

Commissioner Melinda Lautner was the sole “no” vote on the recommendation for the feasibility study: “I don’t want this to be a delay tactic…and come August or September this board decides to do something because we have to do something and do the wrong thing.”

She supports pursuing changes to the state law that authorizes and governs the operation of lake preservation boards so items such as sunset clauses could be included. Janik says he spoke with State Representative Jack O’Malley about the issues but acknowledges legislation changes could take years.

Popa agrees, “Clearly [the current law] has flaws in it, but I think the lake association has concerns about delaying putting in place a sustainable revenue model and a model to oversee the work.”

Meanwhile, says Price, the immediate EWM war wages on, including at its most likely entry points: “We are working with the DNR to put the boat cleaning station at the Bingham boat launch, which is the most used one on the lake.” (Lake Leelanau has 11 public boat launches.)

Popa shares that the $40,000 Bingham boat cleaning station — purchased in partnership with the GTB and LLLA dollars — has arrived “and is being stored until we can grade the site and get a signed agreement from the DNR. We are raring to get it up and running. [Last weekend] we partnered with the Benzie Conservation District to host boat washing demonstrations at Bingham and the Narrows. Education is key.”

Price concurs, “Every lake in Leelanau County is looking really hard at every new weed that shows up. Time is not on our side; this is a biological threat and we can’t let it go while we as a community try to figure out what the perfect solution is.”

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