BOLTON LANDING, N.Y. (AP) — Boaters heading to the crystal-clear waters of Lake George this summer must make one last stop before launching — at inspection stations where vessels are checked for invasive species and decontaminated if any hitchhikers are found.
The popular Adirondack tourist destination is the first lake in the East to require inspections of every boat and trailer. It's modeled on a similar program that began five years ago at Lake Tahoe in Nevada and California and has since spread to numerous other lakes in the West.
"This is history in the making," said Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George. "Stopping invasives requires serious commitment. Lake George can serve as a model from which to learn and act."
Boats are the most common carrier of aquatic invasive species, which include Eurasian watermilfoil, water chestnut and hydrilla that form thick mats of vegetation that choke out native species. Invasive animals that can hitch rides on boats include zebra mussels and Asian clams.
Lake Tahoe launched a mandatory boat inspection program in 2009 to combat invasive quagga mussels. Like zebra mussels, quagga mussels thickly coat docks and water intakes, boat engines and hulls. Other Western lakes have also launched mandatory inspection programs, which have been effective at keeping the mussels from becoming as widespread as they are in the East.
Lake George, which is protected by the state-run Lake George Park Commission, already has five invasive species, including Asian clam, zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil, all of them introduced by boats from other waters. In the past two years alone, the state and local governments have spent more than $1.5 million to eradicate the Asian clam. Millions more have been spent on watermilfoil control since 1988.
The nonprofit Lake George Association has had voluntary boat inspections by lake stewards since 2008. There are also voluntary inspections run by nonprofit groups at numerous other Adirondack lakes, with the goal of educating boaters to clean, drain and dry their vessels to avoid transporting invasive species.
This month, the state Department of Environmental Conservation adopted new regulations requiring boaters to remove all visible plant and animal material from boats and trailers and to drain boats before launching at state-run boat launches.
The Lake George program goes a step further with the mandatory inspections, which started in May. It requires all trailered boats to stop at one of six inspection stations set up around the 32-mile-long lake before they can be launched at any of the 86 public and private launch sites.
Inspectors check a boat's trailer, motor, bilge and other areas inside and out for signs of invasive plants or animals. Boats that don't pass muster are directed to a nearby washing station for decontamination with high-pressure hot water.
Doug Frost, 50, of Lake George has been boating there since he was a child and says heading off more invasive species is important.
"It makes sense. It's an added safety net," Frost said. "And it didn't take very long."
Unlike Lake Tahoe, where boaters pay up to $120 a year for unlimited inspections and $35 for decontamination, the Lake George program is free for boaters, with the state and nonprofit groups paying the annual cost estimated at about $800,000.
"Everyone who's been here has been 100 percent behind it," said Mike Archambault, an inspector stationed at Norowal Marina in Bolton Landing. "They love the lake and want to protect it."
People unfamiliar with the program may balk, at least until the purpose is explained to them.
"We had some people from out of state a few weeks ago who thought it was some kind of trap by state police to give people tickets," said Rick Gage, owner of Performance Marine in Bolton Landing. "Once it was explained, they were fine with it."
Dave Wick, executive director of the Lake George Park Commission, said that even with about 10,000 to 15,000 launchings a year, the goal is to have no more than five minutes of wait time.
At an inspection station, attendants affix a numbered tag to a cable tie connecting the boat and trailer to verify the vessel is clean. Once that cable and tag are in place, the boater is free to head to a launch site. People who launch without getting inspected can be fined upward of $500.
"Our goal is not to hammer people with fines, though," Wick said. "Our first goal is education."