Minnesota outdoors council approves $12 million for invasive carp deterrent

In a last-minute move, the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council voted Tuesday to give out $12 million toward developing a deterrent to reduce the advancement of invasive carp on the Mississippi River, north of Winona.

The work on what the deterrent project becomes and how it is maintained would fall to multiple agencies, led by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). It could need additional funding from another source down the line, too. The DNR and FWS put forward an outline of a plan this week. Council chairman David Hartwell said the council had arrived at a singular "historic" point where it could assist.

The council (LSOHC), a state-formed group of eight citizens and four legislators, recommends expenditures annually from dedicated state tax revenue and, after an adjusted February budget forecast, found itself with an additional $12 million to allocate. The deterrent recommendation will get amended to its list of other conservation projects, totaling $181 million, currently working through the Legislature.

Said Hartwell during the hearing: "There is a difference of opinion on the effectiveness of a barrier and work to be done on a barrier to even know what the effectiveness might be. …

"We know doing nothing is going to lead to carp getting upstream at some point. So it's kind of a terrible choice if you want to know the truth, but at least we are seeing an interest in doing something at this point."

Regarding the draft proposal, Katie Smith, the DNR's director of Ecological and Water Resources, said FWS has expressed interest in partnering on a project at Lock and Dam No. 5. The Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Geological Survey would be involved, too. She also emphasized that myriad questions remain about the project, from its scope to permitting and installation.

The deterrent could be like those getting tested elsewhere, using sound within what's described as a "bubble curtain" to deter invasive carp.

"There are many engineering, evaluation and research pieces that must first be explored," said Smith, who emphasized that a deterrent project must be combined with other strategies the DNR employs like tracking, monitoring and removing the likes of bighead, silver and grass carp.

Michelle Prosser, Corps of Engineers project manager in the St. Paul District, speculated it could take one to two years to even have a deterrent in place, owing to the time needed to evaluate the project. If the Legislature approves the LSOHC recommendation, the $12 million will be available for five years.

The DNR updated its Invasive Carp Action Plan in early January for the first time in 10 years, and the agency received $1.7 million last legislative session to implement the plan. Its approach intensifies tracking and removing invasive species but called for studying a carp deterrent for another four years.

Studies by University of Minnesota professor and carp specialist Peter Sorensen have shown deterrents would be effective at Lock and Dam Nos. 4 and 5. He told the Star Tribune earlier this year that doing nothing "is environmentally irresponsible."

Sorensen, who watched the hearing online Tuesday, said the council's action and its support from legislators is "validating."

"Minnesota has the chance of being the first state in the nation to actually stop them [from advancing upstream] and that has been my objective for a long time," he added.

A letter from representatives of the Stop Carp Coalition on Monday to the LSOHC acknowledged the DNR's updated action plan. Still, the group said more funding is needed "for a key element of the plan: a deterrent system." Coalition members include several nonprofits including the National Parks Conservation Association; Friends of the Mississippi River; and Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance.

"Invasive carp deterrents are being tested elsewhere and are proving effective. Minnesota has the opportunity to capitalize on this new technology to protect our waters in ways that downstream states could not. If we don't act now, invasive carp will continue their expansion into Minnesota waterways."

The Minnesota Sportfishing Foundation & Coalition (MN-FISH) applauded the LSOHC's action. The group had a representative on the working group that updated the DNR's Invasive Carp Action Plan and has supported a deterrent at the lock and dam.

"The proposal approved by the LSOHC is an innovative approach to deterring the spread of invasive carp further up the Mississippi River and into connected Minnesota waterways," said MN-FISH board member David Osborne in a news release.