Washington – Congress is poised to close the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in an effort to shield Minnesota’s northern waters from invasive Asian carp.
The provision is part of an $8 billion water infrastructure bill that will allow funding to improve ports, waterways and projects tied to flood protection, drinking water, dams and environmental restoration. The bill, due for a vote in the Senate this week and the House next week, is expected to pass both chambers with bipartisan consensus.
Environmentalists cheered the agreement to incorporate the lock closure into the final legislation, calling the invasive fish a grave threat to Minnesota’s tourism industry.
Construction of the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam was approved by Congress in 1937 and completed in 1963, allowing navigation to the head of the Mississippi River’s channel and spanning the remnants of its only waterfall.
Before the lock and dam were built, St. Anthony Falls served as a natural geologic barrier, said Steve Hirsch, the state Department of Natural Resources’ director of water and ecological services.
“There’s no one thing that’s going to solve the problem for the entire state,” Hirsch said. “But it’s a very big step.”
State DNR officials have been battling the spread of Asian carp since the early 2000s. As one of the highest and most northern dams, the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam complex is considered by some to be one of the last strong defenses to check the spread of the invasive fish into lakes such as Itasca, Bemidji, Mille Lacs and other tributaries.
A voracious species, Asian carp can grow to 40 pounds or more and some can jump up to 10 feet out of the water. They compete with native game fish, including bass, walleye, and northern pike, for food and habitat.
‘Going down the wrong road’
River industry groups oppose closure, saying it could hurt the region’s economy while doing little to stop the northern advance of the invasive fish.
“They’re going down the wrong road. The Asian carp is just the newest and latest excuse to get businesses off the riverfront” in Minneapolis, said Greg Genz, president of the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association, which represents barge companies and other industrial users.
A 2012 Metropolitan Council report said closing the lock would eliminate 72 jobs. Genz said closing the lock would cut wages and economic output in the region by more than $40 million. The lock and dam would close one year after the legislation is enacted.
Minnesota’s congressional delegation played a key role in crafting the agreement. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, with support from Sen. Al Franken and Reps. Rick Nolan, Erik Paulsen and Tim Walz, wrote provisions in the Senate and House bills that helped incorporate the lock closure in the final legislation.
Those supporting closure including the state DNR, Clean Water Action, the National Wildlife Federation, Mississippi River Fund, Friends of the Mississippi River and a host of other environmental and conservation groups.
“Closing the little-used St. Anthony Falls Lock is the best way for us to slow the spread of invasive carp in Minnesota and to protect the natural resources that are critical to Minnesota’s economy and our way of life,” said Ellison, who represents Minneapolis.
‘Threat is real’
Proponents of the closure say the effect on a handful of companies pales in comparison to what could happen to Minnesota’s multibillion dollar tourism industry should Asian carp begin breeding in the state’s lakes and rivers.
The U.S. Geological Survey recently discovered carp eggs in samples taken from the Mississippi River near Lynxville, Wis., which means the invasive fish have spawned much farther north than previously recorded.
“The threat is real,” said Jill Bathke, natural resource scientist for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “The need to stop them now at Upper St. Anthony Falls is really urgent.”
Irene Jones, program coordinator for Friends of the Mississippi River, said: “It’s a fairly foolproof solution for the Upper Mississippi.”
But Jones warned that closing the passageway will not stop the spread of carp up the St. Croix or Minnesota rivers.
The St. Anthony Falls Lock closure has implications beyond Minnesota. Business and environmental groups have been tracking the legislation, and opponents like Genz worry about the precedent set by shutting down a working waterway.
Legal battles already have been fought over efforts to close Chicago-area shipping locks to keep carp out of the Great Lakes. In an effort to water down industry opposition, the pending federal legislation would trigger the Minneapolis lock closure on the basis of its limited use, not the threat of carp.
But that does little to allay Genz’s concerns.
“Could this be done somewhere as part of some federal legislator’s pet project?” he said. “You’re darn right.”
Staff writer Josephine Marcotty contributed to this report. Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell