It's an idea in its infancy, but the port of Minneapolis could be closed because of invasive fish. And some top city officials welcome the opportunity.
Minutes upstream of downtown Minneapolis, barges arrive every morning at Aggregate Industries bearing the goods. The loads of sand and gravel mined near Cottage Grove maneuver up the Mississippi River through a series of locks to a plant where they're mixed into concrete.
That might all change because of a fish.
Public officials who want to stop invasive Asian carp from reaching Minnesota's northern waters are talking about shuttering the locks that bring barges and other watercraft above St. Anthony Falls, just north of the Stone Arch Bridge. Businesses that rely on the locks are preparing to push back, while some top city officials are salivating at the chance to redevelop an industrial riverfront into homes and parks.
"I think it's one of those things forcing a reassessment of what navigation on the river means for the city of Minneapolis," said John Anfinson, a river historian with the National Parks Service.
Closing Minneapolis' locks is still an idea in its infancy and would require an act of Congress. It would eliminate a 50-year-old system that local leaders once hoped would transform the city into a major port competing with St. Paul. That dream never came true, and commercial river traffic in Minneapolis has dwindled, but the locks remain a lifeline to a handful of businesses.
"This is the cheapest way to bring it in ... by far," said Aggregate's Bob Bieraugel amid the grind of cement trucks at the plant in north Minneapolis. "And if they close the locks, then this doesn't happen anymore and then it has to come up by truck."
The daily barge delivery is equivalent to more than 100 truckloads. To illustrate that point, plant manager Mark Duncan has thought of sending a massive truck shipment from St. Paul to Minneapolis. "You'd tie the freeways up. You'd just shut everything down," he said, standing at Aggregates' dock just across the river from popular tiki lounge Psycho Suzi's.
Just up the street from Aggregate Industries, Northern Metals shreds scrap metal to ship down the river for recycling. Farther north, Minneapolis owns a decaying public port that handles coal, fertilizer, iron and other materials that pass through the locks.
But total tonnage through the St. Anthony Falls locks has fallen precipitously in the last several years. In 2010, it was about 660,000 annual tons, about half of what it was in 2006. Compare that with the 7.1 million tons that passed through Lock 2 in Hastings last year.
"We have a much larger decline in barging on the river than other regions have experienced," Minneapolis economic development director Mike Christenson told the Minneapolis City Council last week. Other uses for the locks include recreational boats and tours, which still move through on a regular basis.
An evolving city relationship
There will be no love lost by several city officials if the St. Anthony Lock is eventually closed. For more than 10 years, the city has planned to phase out industry on the upper riverfront, specifically by closing the city's port.
Mayor R.T. Rybak said he would "strongly support" closing the locks if experts think it will help ward off Asian carp. As for the city's port, he's already prepared to move on.
"That exists because Minneapolis wanted to compete with St. Paul for river-related business," Rybak said. "Get over it. Minneapolis does not need a port."
Where the port is now, the mayor would like to see "a place that ... gives everyone access to the waterfront like we do with the Chain of Lakes" and where people can both work and live.
Lisa Goodman, chair of the city's development committee, said that closing the locks means the city could fill the upper riverfront area with housing and parks.
"What's left is an opportunity," Goodman said. "So I would urge us not to think about it from the perspective of 'Oh my God this is terrible,' but think about how we could create an opportunity."
Steve Ettinger, president of Northern Metals, said he has been meeting frequently with elected leaders as they discuss how to proceed. He said the Coon Rapids dam farther upstream will be the best place to block the carp from getting into central Minnesota.
"I see no reason why you would try and choke off industry that's been here forever," Ettinger said.
The two primary locks being discussed for closure are St. Anthony Falls and Lock 1, at the Ford Dam, which experts say would be very effective fish barriers. "There is an imminent concern here that that is the only place that we could physically stop their movement," Tim Schlagenhaft of the Department of Natural Resources told the City Council last Thursday.
Entangled in Washington
It may be a while before any decisions are made. Gov. Mark Dayton wants Congress to give the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the two locks, authority to close them if Asian carp are found nearby. No federal legislation has been introduced, though Rep. Keith Ellison will be touring the area soon to learn more about the issue.
Sen. Al Franken said in a statement that he is "thoroughly reviewing the St. Anthony Lock proposal Governor Dayton put forward" as a potential method to prevent Asian carp from "infesting our lakes and rivers."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar noted that she has worked with Rep. Erik Paulsen to upgrade the Coon Rapids dam farther upstream, which received $16 million in state bonding funds to become a better carp barrier.
A DNR official said, however, that the Coon Rapids dam would not be a "100 percent effective barrier," partly since fish can jump over it when water backs up during an ice jam.
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper