Asian carp threat inspires federal report

By Metro Editor

The asian carp, Lake Michigan’s least welcome visitor, could soon face an upstream battle as the federal government and environmentalists explore solutions to decrease their destructive presence in the Great Lakes, where they jeopardize the water system and other species.

With authorization from Congress, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study on Jan. 6, outlining eight potential plans legislators near the lakes and the Chicago Area Waterway System can use to prevent the spread of Asian carp and other harmful aquatic species that degrade water quality. One of the plans outlined in the report, which details installing physical barriers to keep the species in the Mississippi River and out of the Great Lakes, is sparking debate among environmentalists because of its cost.

Illinois would install barriers in Chicago, Wilmette, and Calumet City, and one would be implemented in Hammond, Ind., according to the report. The barriers would prevent the movement of nuisance species, such as scud and Asian carp, to Lake Michigan while improving water movement and quality. However, the report states that the barriers would cause flooding, creating a need for tunnels, reservoirs and artificial lakes to alleviate excess water. The USACE estimates the plan would cost more than $18 billion and take 25 years to complete.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, co-chair of the House of Representatives’ Great Lakes Task Force, supports building a physical barrier and said although the price is hefty, the long-term result of preventing the invasion of nuisance species should be considered, according to a Jan. 6 press release from Miller’s office.

David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, said the recommendation followed a Jan. 31, 2012 report from the Great Lakes Commission that found physical barriers would effectively restore the divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, keeping the Asian carp out.

“Physical barriers are the most effective way of keeping invasive species from going in either direction, especially Asian carp,” Ullrich said. “What the study added was a number of other alternatives … that are important to consider.”

Ullrich said the cost USACE estimates are surprising and he thinks it was largely overestimated. He said the study is a great way to begin conversations about eliminating the Asian carp, but the logistics, such as the time frame and expense, need to be further analyzed.

However, physical barriers are a concern for businesses that rely on the Great Lakes for transporting goods, said Mark Biel, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois. Biel said many businesses along the Great Lakes use barges to transport goods, and physical barriers would likely make shipment routes more costly and less efficient.

Biel said because the USACE emphasizes in the report that none of the proposal alternatives are completely effective, the cost and flood risks posed make it unrealistic.

“I don’t think Congress will ever authorize the money that is necessary to do this,” Biel said. “It’s just so expensive and that’s assuming everybody agrees … but it’s very simple for someone to file a lawsuit in federal court to stop it. It will be groups like mine, or anybody who thinks they’re going to be negatively impacted, and this could be tied up in court for years.”

Allison Fore, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which monitors the Chicago Area Waterway System, said the organization is glad the report was released but that each of the proposed solutions present challenges.

Another alternative proposed is creating a buffer zone so when the presence of an aquatic nuisance species is identified, the system is notified and the GLMRIS Lock, a gate system that controls the passage of harmful species, rumbles into action.

The proposals are also a concern for Chicago businesses because new waterway policies affect their economic success, said Benjamin Brockschmidt, executive director of the Infrastructure Council at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

“When you look at something like GLIMRIS, it comes down to what [the priorities are] going to be,” Brockschmidt said. “Is it going to be implementing one of these solutions that might not be 100 percent effective and have it really take a lot of the air out of the room of all these other investments? Or are there other things that can be done to prevent the spread of invasive species … and not have us completely ignore the other needs that we have?”