Dennis Anderson: Carp clarity is just six steps away

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2012 - 12:00 AM

A comprehensive plan to turn back Asian carp is needed in Minnesota. Here's a suggestion.

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The invasive species silver carp, a variety of the Asian carp.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Associated Press - Ap

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Minnesota's lack of a comprehensive approach to fighting Asian carp might be the state's undoing. Imagine leaping silver carp in the Minnesota River from the Twin Cities to the South Dakota border, also throughout the St. Croix River to Taylors Falls, and in the Mississippi River upstream from the Twin Cities as far as you can imagine.

Recreation on these waters? Gone. Sport fishing? Gone. A quiet time in the old pontoon motoring lazily in front of the cabin? Gone.

Such dire possibilities aren't far-fetched, and could occur relatively quickly, with little recourse once they do.

A six-pronged approach is needed for the state to thwart a worst-case scenario:

1) Legislative leaders and the governor must reach agreement this session to appoint a state invasive species czar.

Ideally, this point person would deal only with Asian carp. But budget shortfalls won't allow it, and the legislative turf wars and nitpicking that inevitably would commandeer the spotlight should such an idea actually reach the House and Senate chambers would argue against singular responsibilities. So, OK, put the czar in charge of all aquatic invasive species.

Whom to appoint? Tim Schlagenhaf, the DNR's present go-to guy on Asian carp, could certainly do the job. Doubtless others also could be effective. More important than who is a recognition that the state's response so far to invasive species has been disjointed and virtually guarantees less than optimal results, if not outright failure. As forebodingly, key DNR staff, including the commissioner, are being distracted from their primary duties of managing fish and wildlife and their habitats to deal with carp and zebra mussels. Upshot: The present course is unsustainable.

2) The Minnesota congressional delegation must become far more engaged in the Asian carp issue.

Until it is, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be hamstrung in both the authority and money it needs to reduce the impact of Asian carp on the Upper Mississippi watershed.

Say what you will about the Corps and its bureaucratic ways, but know this: It holds virtually all the cards regarding navigable rivers in this country. It employs really smart people. And it's willing to help -- provided Congress gives it authority and money.

Minnesota's congressional gang has proceeded so far as if we have years to figure this carp thing out. Yes, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis has a draft bill that's circulating, and it's a good first step -- commanding, among other things, studies by the Corps regarding carp barriers and lock closures. But until Minnesota's delegation stands united in its resolve to join the carp fight, an effective solution is years away, or perhaps (more likely) altogether elusive.

3. The governor and legislative leaders, working through their new invasive species czar, must develop before the end of the legislative session (yes, that quickly) the state's position on the emergency closure of the lock at Upper St. Anthony Falls -- which would also mean closing the lock at Lower St. Anthony Falls and Lock and Dam 1, also known as the Ford Dam, because commercial traffic that uses one uses them all.

Clearly, the state should advocate for a closure, assuming financial or other accommodations can be made to the two major commercial users of the locks, and assuming such a directive is welcomed by Minnesota's congressional delegation, which necessarily would have to advocate in Congress for a law allowing the shutting.

Until then, Gov. Dayton and other officials should, beginning this spring, work to end, or minimize, recreational traffic passing through the three locks.

Yes, a federal study seemed to show that carp and/or other fish will pass through a lock in relatively constant numbers regardless of the number of times it's opened. Still, the locks should be opened as few times as possible until a more permanent solution is achieved.

4. The Legislature needs to get real about the time frame and costs required to install the electric lock barrier(s) it's now considering.

Know first that installing an electric fish barrier of the kind now being used in a Chicago canal has never been tried before in a lock. As a result, the Corps is very concerned about the multitudinous safety considerations. In Chicago, for instance, electric barriers intended to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan come with the following Coast Guard restrictions: Recreational boats must be longer than 22 feet to cross them, and boat occupants at the time of crossing must wear life jackets and be inside boat cabins (or their equivalent). That's in a channel 165 feet across -- not the 800 feet of electrification at Hastings that Rep. Denny McNamara's committee considered recently.

Which underscores again the need for a) a carp czar, and b) full engagement of the congressional delegation, without which the state will have difficulty forming and implementing a plan that necessarily must include all the expertise the Corps of Engineers can muster, and the requisite authority and money it needs to effect said plan.

The Corps, for example, needs to study -- from 30,000 feet -- the entire Upper Mississippi carp fiasco. If in fact electrification across 800 feet of river is possible (don't hold your breath), would Hastings be the best place for such a barrier? Even if it is, no one's going to light up Ol' Muddy without the Corps' permission.

Which is why everything will proceed more smoothly if the Corps has the authority and money to study whether such electrification is possible and if so, where to implement it.

Also needing study is this: Why aren't we immediately considering the placement of an electric barrier at Lock and Dam 19 at Keokuk, Iowa? It's there that we could (perhaps) still stop at least two of the four Asian carp species, as well as the snakehead and a whole boatload of other evil critters, en route upstream but not yet to Keokuk (all dams between Keokuk and the Lock and Dam 1 in St. Paul -- the Ford Dam -- are of a type that can't be fitted with electric or other barriers).

5. The DNR must get in synch with the Corps regarding eDNA tests the state uses. Last year, the state's tests found traces of silver carp genetic material in the St. Croix and Mississippi, including upstream of the Coon Rapids dam. Turns out -- who knew? -- the state tests aren't the same ones the feds use, thus raising the possibility of false positives.

6. The proposed invasive species research center at the U must become a reality, ultimately working hand in glove with the DNR.

Will any of this happen?

Possibly -- especially if you call your representatives in St. Paul and Washington and tell them you expect action, and soon.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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