Mississippi River carp barrier plan snagged by U internal dispute

Peter Sorensen
Peter Sorensen holds a juvenile silver carp pulled from a tank in his lab.
Matt Sepic | MPR News file

Plans for an invasive carp barrier on the Mississippi River near Winona, Minn., are caught in a dispute between a key scientist and the University of Minnesota.

As a result, the future of the project is uncertain.

Peter Sorensen said he planned to seek funding for the $8 million invasive carp barrier from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources but that university administrators declined to submit the proposal.

Sorensen, a researcher who was demoted previously by the U, has been testing sound and air bubble barriers for several years.

Asian carp
Silver carp in a tank Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013 at the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file

He says they work well in a controlled lab setting and that he's confident it can turn back invasive carp. He said he believes university officials didn't push ahead on the project because they are too concerned about failure.

"It's much more complicated than I even had realized. Dealing with administrations is maybe as complicated as the science itself," he said. "I guess everyone is so risk averse these days they sort of have to figure it out for themselves."

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Susan Galatowitsch, director of the U's Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Center, disputes the notion the university scuttled the project.

"It wasn't as if the science was deemed to be not OK," she said. "It was basically that Peter needed to do more coordination internally. He hadn't done really any."

The carp barrier is a major construction project and a lot of technical and legal questions needed to be answered before the university could commit to the project, she added.

Sorensen admits his proposal was short on details but said he was unaware of the legal and technical requirements. He said was responding to what he sees as an urgent need for action to stop invasive carp.

"We've been very lucky, honestly," he said. "It's almost a miracle they haven't gotten through and established themselves as a breeding population. We've just been given this chance. There's a small window to act."

Invasive carp have been moving up the Mississippi river for years. One was caught in the Minnesota river this winter. Invasive carp DNA has been found in the St. Croix River.

Some conservation groups are frustrated the project is not moving more quickly.

Earlier this month the Stop Carp coalition, a group of environmental organizations, sent a letter to legislative leaders urging the project be funded so construction can begin next year.

The state might be missing its best chance to stop the invasive carp, said Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates Executive Director Jeff Forester.

"I think there's a real obligation for decision makers and policy makers to sort through whatever issues they might have and take a stand," said Forester, who acknowledges that funding this year is unlikely. "How terrible to have an option we don't pursue and then get stuck with these species forever."

The closure of the upper Saint Anthony lock in Minneapolis last year protects the upper Mississippi from invasive carp. Adding a barrier at the lock and dam north of Winona would help keep carp out of the Minnesota and St. Croix rivers, he said.

Jumping onto a barge
After more than 50 years of operation, the upper St. Anthony Falls lock closed to quell the possible spread of invasive carp species.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News file

Sorensen's project is why the Legislature established an aquatic invasive species research center at the University of Minnesota, Forester added. "Why they are not pushing to implement it, I don't understand. It seems like a real lost opportunity to fulfill their mission."

Galatowitsch, the primary researcher responsible for coordinating a project, called the criticism unfair.

"What's unusual here is when somebody knows they have a major complicated project to not reach out early internally and get things sort of arranged and have those discussions," she said of Sorensen. "I guess all I can say is he's opting not to do that as far as I know, but when he does do that he'll be supported."

Sorensen resigned from the Aquatic Invasive Species Center board of directors after his grant proposal was rejected in March. He was removed as director of the center two years ago. He founded the research center in 2012 to focus on aquatic invasive species threatening Minnesota rivers and lakes.

While his project remains in limbo at the U, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is stepping in to move the project forward.

The agency this summer will start a six-month study on whether the carp sound and bubble barrier is feasible, said Division of Ecological and Water Resources Section Manager Ann Pierce.

The DNR will decide if it should seek funding to build the barrier. That process could take another year.

"This hasn't been done so we need to really understand what are the costs of constructing something like this and then what are the costs of maintaining something like this," Pierce said. "I don't think you go into doing any large scale activity like this without exploring what you need to do to get it done."