Momentum builds for lock closure in metro

St. Paul — Congressional momentum is building for a plan to close the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam in Minneapolis to impede the northward migration of Asian carp.

Last week, a House committee incorporated lock closure into legislation that funds ports and other water projects across the nation. The water resources bill is expected to pass with bipartisan support.

The U.S. Senate earlier this year passed a water resources bill that includes lock closure.

“We can win this battle if we divide and conquer,” said Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation. “That’s why this line of defense needs to be established at St. Anthony.”

The House still needs to pass its bill, and then a conference committee will need to iron out differences in the two bills.

Still, supporters of closing the lock and dam are pleased with the progress.

“We’re certainly seeing this legislation get further along than we might have anticipated a year ago,” said Steve Hirsch, director of the DNR Ecological and Water Resources Division.

River industry groups are fighting the lock closure, saying it would hurt the region’s economy and do little to stop the northern advance of Asian carp.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democratic lawmaker from northern Minnesota, and fellow Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis have been working to move the lock closure through Congress.

A pair of gravel and scrap metal yards on the Minneapolis waterfront still use the lock, but local officials are eager to redevelop the city’s industrial port, and a riverboat company already has been relocated downriver.

“We see it as a fairly simple and inexpensive solution, compared to what we’re going to have to do downstream to stop the carp,” said Irene Jones, program coordinator for Friends of the Mississippi River, which supports closure. “It’s sort of a no-brainer.”

Closing the lock would cut wages and economic output by more than $40 million, said Al Christopherson, a southern Minnesota farmer who leads the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association, which represents barge companies and other industrial users. A Metropolitan Council report has said 72 jobs would be lost.

But proponents of the closure say the effect on a handful of Minneapolis companies pales in comparison to what could happen to the state’s $11 billion-a-year tourism industry if Asian carp, an invasive species that crowds out native fish, begin breeding in Minnesota’s lakes and rivers.

In an effort to blunt industry opposition, the pending legislation would close the lock on the basis of limited use, not the threat of carp.

“They’re looking at it more as an economic issue,” said Marc Smith, of the National Wildlife Federation.

Even as the federal legislation appears to be moving ahead, the Minnesota DNR is proceeding with efforts to install an electronic sweeping barrier at Lock and Dam 1. That project is still in the design phase.

However, that contract can be terminated with 30 days notice.

“If and when the legislation passes, we would have to look at how far along we are in that design contract,” Hirsch said.

He doesn’t believe a sweeping barrier would be necessary at Lock and Dam 1 if the St. Anthony lock and dam is shut down. And if Asian carp couldn’t advance past that part of the river, officials would be able to focus their efforts elsewhere.

“There are all kinds of other things we could really focus on here,” Hirsch said.

Those include trying to prevent Asian carp from getting into the southwestern part of the state, and slowing or stopping their spread into the Minnesota and St. Croix rivers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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