Legislature, Congress takes on AIS; Bills aimed at stopping spread occupy lawmakers
BEMIDJI - At least one Minnesota political party said a lot was accomplished in the 2013 legislative session. Minnesota DFLers, who controlled both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office, boasted putting more money into education and property tax relief. But one local legislator is dismayed they didn’t do enough in one area: fighting aquatic invasive species. "We could not get money to local organizations who are doing the fight now," said DFL Rep. Roger Erickson of Baudette. "People in Hubbard County are doing a great job, there are other individual lake associations that are working hard to do it and right now we’re not giving them a lot of help." Legislators and the governor have a large say in how the state, particularly the Department of Natural Resources, fights AIS by setting funding levels, writing laws regulating boat transportation and establishing barriers to prevent their spread. Last session saw some controversy over Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto of $3 million for local governments to provide education, boat inspections and decontamination. That proposal wasn’t approved by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which makes recommendations to the Legislature on how to spend Legacy amendment dollars. Dayton said he would follow that council’s recommendations, and after some uproar from outdoor groups, he did just that. Ken Grob, a member of the state DNR’s AIS advisory committee and the Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations, lamented that decision last week. He said the state DNR’s inspections are aimed at containing lakes already affected by AIS, while they rely on local governments and volunteer organizations to "shield" uninfested ones. "We were about that close to getting a lot more money until the governor line-item vetoed...$3 million out of the Lessard-Sams budget," Grob told Bemidji City Councilors in a pitch for city funds to hire more inspectors on Lake Bemidji. Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, sits on the Lessard-Sams council. He said the veto had less to do with the merits of the legislation, but rather the process it went through to get to Dayton’s desk. "I really believe that those proposals that were shoved into the bill that were line-item vetoed, if they had been proposed to the council, some of them might have been considered and approved," Saxhaug said. "Hopefully we’ll all learn our lessons." State Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said the use of "rigorous" inspections to stop the spread of AIS is necessary. "Education is fine," Persell said, but added: "We’ve been doing it for how many years? More than a decade...It’s not getting what we need to get. So, unfortunately, we’re going to have to do some inspection activities." The DNR’s budget appears to reflect that need. Of the $7.2 million it spent on aquatic invasive species in fiscal year 2012, 42 percent was dedicated to inspections and enforcement, 25 percent is for management and control and 10 percent was put toward education and public awareness, according to a DNR report. Congress takes on carp Local legislators said the main threat to nearby lakes now is zebra mussels. But another form of AIS that has already affected waters in other Midwest states looms to the south. Asian carp, the fish known for being so spooked by boat motors that they leap out of the water, have not been found in northern Minnesota waters. To prevent that from happening, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, is looking at closing the lock and dam at the Upper St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis as a way to stop the spread of the invasive carp. Tucked into the Water Resources Development Act, which passed the Senate in May, is a provision authored by Klobuchar that states that the lock and dam shall be closed within a year of the bill being passed if the average amount moving through it is less than 1.5 million tons over the last five years. Klobuchar said in an interview with The Bemidji Pioneer that the purpose of the bill is to prevent the fish from moving upstream and gaining access to northern Minnesota waters, which would "devastate" the tourism industry that the region relies on. She said closing a physical barrier would be the most surefire way of preventing their spread until other techniques are researched. "It may not be a permanent thing," Klobuchar said. She added that only two companies currently use the passageway. Klobuchar said she was happy to see the bill pass out of the Senate, but noted it still has to get through the House. Persell said he supports that plan. He also authored a bill last session that would direct the DNR to establish an electric barrier at a lock and dam in St. Paul. That project is in the preliminary design phase, according to Kim Waldof of the DNR’s engineering department. The U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers would still have to approve plans for that barrier, Waldof said. "Arguably you would want redundancy," Persell said. "So even if you had an electric fish barrier somewhere, it’d be nice to say we have St. Anthony as a redundancy." Funding research During a recent visit to Bemidji, state DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the measures they’re taking now are aimed at stopping the spread of AIS. But the key to stopping them for good is scientific research. "We’re hoping that research will ultimately give us the silver bullet," Landwehr said. To that end, the Legislature and Dayton approved spending $8.7 million for the University of Minnesota’s Aquatic Invasive Species Center in 2013. There, techniques to fight Asian carp, zebra mussels and other AIS will be developed. Saxhaug said funding that center was "the best thing" the Legislature did in opposing AIS. But he added that for now, educating the public about the law and their responsibilities will have to do. "I do believe science is the answer here," Saxhaug said. "But as far as aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels, I think right now it’s the local residents making people cognizant of what they should be doing."