Business interests, environmentalists divided over carp plans
By Mike Nolan firstname.lastname@example.org January 10, 2014 10:16PM
A barge passes by an electric barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Deployed several years ago to block the destructive Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan, continued use of the barrier is one option outlined in a new U.S. Army Corps of Engin
Updated: February 13, 2014 6:32AM
While some have labeled the potential invasion of the Great Lakes by the Asian carp an environmental disaster waiting to happen, John Kindra thinks one option being considered to combat the threat could have bigger consequences for the environment.
His company, Kindra Lake Towing, moves barges along the southern end of Lake Michigan, hauling raw materials and finished goods to and from steel mills in northwest Indiana as well as products such as grain.
One ambitious, if not audacious, plan to contain the carp calls for physically separating Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes from the Mississippi River watershed by building dams at sections of the rivers and canals southwest and south of Chicago that drain into the Mississippi River.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in its study released last week outlining eight possible options for containing the carp and other aquatic invaders, said that project could take as long as 25 years to complete and cost $18.4 billion.
Environmentalists fear that allowing the Asian carp, which has no natural predators, to reach the Great Lakes would endanger the lakes’ roughly $7 billion fishing industry.
For businesses that rely on the lake and area waterways to move goods, disconnecting the lake from the Mississippi River would drive up costs and possibly mean a significant increase in truck traffic as an alternative transportation method, adding to the region’s pollution problems, Kindra said.
“It’s too expensive and too uncertain to be a viable solution,” he said.
Business concerns are butting heads with environmental interests, with diametrically opposed views on the issue of separating the two basins.
Other options include installing new locks on Chicago-area waterways and building specialized water treatment plants to filter out nuisance species. Most of the alternatives would worsen flooding, requiring construction of more stormwater reservoirs as part of the ongoing Deep Tunnel project.
There’s also the idea of continuing current efforts to stop the carp, including using electric barriers on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal at Romeoville and commercial harvesting of the fish. Last year, more than 50,000 Asian carp were pulled from the Illinois River.
Kindra said he hopes more consideration is given to that option.
“As we’re fishing them (carp), we’re holding them at bay,” he said. “We need a very thorough review and pragmatic look (at the alternatives).”
And even with spending billions of dollars on a plan, there’s no guarantee it will solve the problem, according to the Army Corps. It acknowledges that none of the options it has suggested is foolproof, and opponents of separating the two watersheds argue that the greater risk comes from inadvertent human transfer of the carp.
Experts say the carp and other nuisance species can easily hitch a ride from one body of water to another in, for example, the bilge hold of a pleasure boat or by being used accidentally as bait by someone fishing in the Great Lakes.
By the time some of the projects could be completed, the carp might have established themselves in the lakes, said Benjamin Brockschmidt, with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. At a Corps-sponsored public hearing last week in Chicago, Brockschmidt said separating the two watersheds is “not economically feasible” and would result in “irreparable economic damages.”
But the Alliance for the Great Lakes, whose members include the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club, contends that separating the two watersheds is “the most effective way to stop invasive species from wreaking environmental and economic harm on the Great Lakes and Mississippi River communities,” according to Joel Brammeier, the alliance’s president and chief executive.
The Army Corps isn’t recommending one option over another, calling the study a “tool for alternative thinking” about combatting invasive species, Dave Wethington, project manager with the Corps’ Chicago district office, said at the public hearing Thursday.
In its report, the Corps acknowledges that “it may not be technologically feasible to achieve an absolute solution” to migration of nuisance species, with Wethington describing the various options as a way to “buy down risk.”
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District also isn’t endorsing any option but is reviewing the Corps report and “will look for immediate action items that the MWRD can support and ideas that merit a closer look,” MWRD spokeswoman Allison Fore said.
Joe Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University and an authority on economic development and urban transportation issues, said flooding issues that would result from a complete or partial separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds “make this enormously complex.”
Huge new reservoirs are proposed by the Corps adjacent to existing ones in McCook and Thornton, and one proposal would require excavating a 200-million-gallon reservoir next to an Oak Lawn cemetery.
The Army Corps’ report, sent last week to Congress, also faces an “uphill battle” in winning support due to limited federal funding, Schwieterman said.
To educate about the Asian carp’s threat to the Great Lakes, the Shedd Aquarium has launched an online curriculum aimed at seventh- through ninth-grade students, called “Asian Carp Exploration,” as well as short educational videos, titled “High Stakes for the Great Lakes.”
The curriculum offers “problem-based learning involving a real-world problem,” Michelle Parker, Shedd’s vice president of Great Lakes and Sustainability, said, while the videos could create a better understanding of the issue.
“We’re hoping that folks from the general public that hear the debate around (the Corps’) study will have an idea of what that debate is all about,” Parker said.