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As the Dayton administration and environmental organizations push Congress to permit the emergency closure of the navigational locks on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, two new government studies have detailed the potential costs of action — and inaction.

New carp studies fuel debate over closing Mississippi locks in Minneapolis

According to a report by the Metropolitan Council, closing the number one lock at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis to stop the spread of Asian carp would result in the loss of 72 jobs. (Photo: Mike Mosedale)

Carp troubles weighed against jobs; decision up to Congress

Special to Capitol Report

As the Dayton administration and environmental organizations push Congress to permit the emergency closure of the navigational locks on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, two new government studies have detailed the potential costs of action — and inaction.

At the governor’s request, the Metropolitan Council commissioned an analysis of the economic impacts to river-dependent businesses and workers if commercial navigation were to be shut down in Minneapolis. Some contend that such a measure is the best method to prevent the further spread upriver of invasive Asian carp into the recreational fishing meccas of central and northern Minnesota.

According to the 79-page report, released last month, closure of the locks at St. Anthony Falls would lead to the direct loss of 72 jobs, including the 23 employees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who operate the locks. An additional 55 jobs would be lost as a consequence of a “ripple effect,” the study estimated.

The closure of the locks would force current users of the Minneapolis riverfront to ship commodities via rail and truck instead of barge. That would lead to an additional $24.2 million in transportation costs over the next 28 years, the report estimated. The study also found that closing the locks in Minneapolis could cause supply chain problems for users of eastern coal and certain agricultural products that are currently delivered to Minneapolis via barge.

Talk of jobs

John Anfinson, cultural resource specialist with the National Park Service and co-chair of the state’s Asian Carp Task Force, hailed the Met Council study as “rigorous” and said he expects it will inform the continuing debate over lock closure.

“I think both sides will use it,” Anfinson said. “Everybody talks about jobs these days. I think they [the navigation industry] will use it to talk about lost jobs.”

Irene Jones of Friends of the Mississippi – part of a coalition of non-government organizations that is advocating for lock closure – noted that the study highlights a pattern of long-term decline in barge traffic in Minneapolis.

“I think this study affirms that there’s not a huge economic impact to closing those locks,” Jones said. “If the locks were closed, the taxpayers could save $1 million a year. That’s the simplified version of it.”

Last year, 645,000 tons of commodities – mostly sand, gravel, crushed rock, and scrap metal – passed through the river in Minneapolis. That figure is down from over one million tons in 2006. Ports at St. Paul, by contrast, handled some 5.2 million tons of cargo last year, a reflection of the much more robust navigation industry in the capital city.

In another carp-related study released last month, the Department of Natural Resources released its estimate of the value of the “water recreation economy” that could be threatened should Asian carp establish breeding populations on the Mississippi north of Minneapolis.

DNR examines carp’s economic impact

Statewide, spending on fishing and boating is pegged at about $4 billion. According to the DNR study, annual spending on boating and fishing on lakes and rivers connected to the Mississippi between Coon Rapids and Lake Bemidji – waters that would presumably be protected by a lock closure — is approximately $44 million.

“The potential for economic harm, of course, can be seen as much larger,” the report stated. “Many billions of dollars are tied to Minnesota water recreation, related tourism, and riparian properties, including home prices and property values.”

The DNR is planning a more exhaustive study to examine the threat posed by Asian carp to other watersheds in the state, including the Minnesota and St. Croix rivers.

For both advocates and opponents, the looming question remains whether Congress will grant the Army Corps emergency authority to shut down the locks at St. Anthony Falls. That may hinge on whether or not Minnesota’s congressional delegation lines up behind the Upper Mississippi Conservation and River Protection Act of 2012, which was introduced this spring by Rep. Keith Ellison and Sen. Amy Klobuchar but has yet to be heard in committee.

The CARP Act would require the Corps of Engineers to conduct feasibility studies on lock closure, to examine options for controlling the spread of Asian carp, and to provide a trigger for immediate lock closure in the event Asian carp are found in the vicinity.

To date, five members of the Minnesota delegation – Representatives Betty McCollum, John Kline, Chip Cravaack, Collin Peterson, and Michele Bachmann – have yet to signal support for the bill, said Jones of the Friends of the Mississippi. She noted that congressional staffers have attended many of the meetings that have been held on the subject but “I think they need some pressure to sign on.” She said a coalition of NGOs is planning to launch a campaign in the coming weeks to urge just that.

Anfinson of the Asian Carp Task Force said it would be easier to make the argument for closure with a unified congressional delegation. However, he cautioned, that’s not the only factor. Concern over Asian carp infiltrating the Great Lakes has led five states, including Minnesota, to sue for the closure of the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, which is seen as the mostly likely route for the carp to establish populations in the Great Lakes.

“Can you shut down a lock and dam based on ecological and recreational impacts? It’s the same issue in both places. The argument is that there’s an ecological emergency,” said Anfinson.  But the economic implications of closing the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal are much greater, given the far larger volume of barge traffic there, Anfinson noted.

Greg Genz, vice-president of the Upper Mississippi Waterway Association, said he doubted Congress would authorize the closure of the Minneapolis locks, which were completed in the early 1960s at a cost of approximately $300 million in today’s dollars.

Genz also questioned the wisdom of focusing carp control efforts at St. Anthony Falls because that would do nothing to prevent the fish from moving into the St. Croix and Minnesota rivers.

“I’m most concerned about the Minnesota River,” Genz said. He noted that the Minnesota River, with its rich nutrient load and extensive backwaters, is similar to the Illinois River – a river where Asian carp have established robust populations.

Genz and other navigation supporters want the DNR to focus on developing fish barriers below Lock and Dam #2 at Hastings, an approach the DNR has resisted, terming it impractical.

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