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Column: Washington gridlock pauses to stop floods and carp

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Column: Washington gridlock pauses to stop floods and carp
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

By CONRAD deFIEBRE, Minnesota 2020

ST. PAUL — In a rare burst of bipartisan harmony in Washington, Congress just overwhelmingly approved a $12.3 billion water resources bill with two critically important measures for Minnesota.

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One is an $846.7 million authorization for a Red River valley diversion project designed to safeguard cities in both Minnesota and North Dakota from recurring flood disasters. The other is a fiscal nonentity that should protect northern Minnesota’s fisheries from Asian carp invasion once and for all, by closing the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam at down-town Minneapolis.

This move will also shut down the industrial Port of Minneapolis further up the Mississippi River within a year. The legislation orders a study of the economic and environmental impacts of the closure, but also requires it to go forward regardless of the findings based on the lock’s dwindling commercial traffic. If “the average annual tonnage ... for the preceding five years is not more than 1.5 million tons,” the language championed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and others in the Minnesota delegation reads, closure is mandatory. According to state figures, Minneapolis river tonnage hasn’t reached that level in many years and totaled less in 2012 and 2013 combined.

The lock, opened in 1963, now accounts for less than 1 percent of Minnesota’s waterways freight movement, which is increasing overall. For a time, the closure might increase highway hauling of aggregate and scrap metals that are processed at the Minneapolis port, but that area is slated for non-industrial redevelopment in line with contemporary appreciation of the benefits of riverside living and recreation.

Most experts agree that closing the lock, which lifts vessels 49 feet over the falls, is the surest way to keep the giant invasive carp out of the Upper Mississippi and its many sport fishing lakes.

Although the legislation barely touches on transportation in Minnesota, nationwide it will broadly support economically vital harbor maintenance, dredging and improvement. Amid Congress’s self-imposed ban on earmarks, every project authorized was recommended by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, albeit often after lobbying by elected representatives.

As federal funding for surface transportation nears expiration this summer, should accord on a water bill inspire optimism for highways, bridges, transit and nonmotorized travel? Maybe, but it’s far from a slam dunk. The price there is hundreds of billions instead of a dozen — with most of the money coming, in one form or another, from ordinary Americans rather than the business users of the waterways. It will be a very heavy lift.

Conrad deFiebre is a transportation fellow with Minnesota 2020.

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