ST. PAUL -- State legislators are moving ahead with plans to build an electric barrier in the Mississippi River to stop the spread of Asian carp.

A bill instructing the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to contract for design work on an electric barrier at Lock and Dam No. 1 in St. Paul passed the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy committee Wednesday.

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The bill as introduced by Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, would have had the department install electric barriers at Lock and Dam No. 1 and on the Minnesota River in Mankato before April 2014.

The bill was amended Tuesday night to say the department must contract for design work rather than actually constructing a barrier, and only at the St. Paul location. Amendment author Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, said that without a design, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard can't say whether they would approve an electric barrier.

The Legislature appropriated $7.5 million to the Department of Natural Resources last year for Asian carp barriers, $5.6 million of which was for design and construction of a barrier at Lock and Dam No. 1.

"There's still enough money to contract with somebody to do the design," Hackbarth said. The department must award the contract before March 15, the bill states.

Legislators are anxious to find a way to stop the potential spread of the invasive species to other Minnesota waters. Last April, commercial fishermen caught a Bighead carp, a type of Asian carp, about 35 miles downstream from Lock and Dam No. 1.

Persell said before the Tuesday night hearing that electric barriers are one of several ideas that should be considered to stop Asian carp.

"Electric barriers, in and of themselves, we believe are not the full answer," Persell said. "I'm as distressed as many others that we keep finding zebra mussels and other invasive (species) in our lakes."

How to stop them, however, has been up for debate.

The department last month recommended a barrier using sound, bubbles and lights at Lock and Dam No. 1. That came when it released the results of a Barr Engineering Co. report that indicated that method would be "the most viable option to deter invasive fish from moving past" that facility.

"While an electric barrier inserted into the water would be the most effective technology for carp deterrence, the Barr report concluded it is not a feasible option due to significant public safety risks and corrosion to metal components of the lock," a department news release stated. "The report also states that it is highly unlikely that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would approve an electric barrier at the lock."

Russel Snyder, a project manager for the Corps of Engineers and liaison to the Department of Natural Resources, didn't comment on the merits of the legislation or whether an electric barrier would be approved. But he noted several potential issues with the electric barrier technology.

Existing infrastructure could be damaged by an electric barrier, Snyder said. He added that the lock and dam is near recreational areas, which could lead to public safety concerns.

Unlike the St. Paul location, the electric barriers in Chicago are in a more industrial area. And crews on barges moving through the barrier there must be off the deck as a safety precaution, Snyder said.

"If you have to operate at a level that's deemed to be hazardous, how do you address that safety risk and are there measures you can take to mitigate that," Snyder said. "That's one of the big hurdles if they do decide to proceed with an electrical barrier at Lock and Dam No. 1."

The Barr Engineering report also stated that the amount of electricity needed to deter Asian carp would be above the threshold to cause harm to humans.

While many on the committee were ready to move forward with an electric barrier, some were skeptical that it would be an effective tactic against the invasive species.

"We have no idea what their reaction is going to be to an electric barrier with low electricity," Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said of Asian carp during Tuesday's committee meeting. "We just don't know."