Report identifies options to thwart Asian carp

Washington – A new report commissioned by a pair of conservation organizations may help pressure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move swiftly to turn back the calendar to the 1900s.

"We're hopeful that this will light a fire under the Corps of Engineers," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in a conference call she held recently along with U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., and the organizations that created the report, "Restoring the Natural Divide: Separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basins in the Chicago Area Waterway System,"

(The report is available at www.glc.org/caws)

The Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative in their report presented three options they say could restore the two waters as physically separate entities.

And they did it in about 12 months. Legislation introduced by Stabenow and Camp, called the Stop Asian Carp Act, would require the Corps to present Congress with a plan within 18 months; the Corps has its own 2015 target.

The goal of the act, and the most visible reason behind the conservation groups' plan, is averting the danger posed to the Great Lakes system by Asian carp, which have largely overtaken the Mississippi River system.

Separating the watersheds also would block 37 other species the Corps says are poised to move from one to another, in both directions.

And the conservation groups' report goes beyond the carp and other creatures, to package with the fish-blocking major improvements in the Chicago area in flood control, water quality, and water-borne transportation.

The report outlines advantages, disadvantages, and costs of three distinct approaches to severing the man-made connections between Lake Michigan and the system called the Chicago Area Waterways System (CAWS).

The report does not select a favorite from among the three but does call one the most practical.

Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, said Lake Michigan water moves into the CAWS at five points, the result of massive projects begun around 1900 that reversed the flow of the Chicago River and other streams so the big lake's water could help move sewage and other wastes away from the city, guard against floods, and support shipping.

"It is a complex waterway system," he said, and one with many challenges.

Among the more recent is the invasion of Asian carp up the Mississippi.

The various invasive carp eat ravenously, breed rampantly, and grow to 100 pounds and more. They gobble up the small life that forms the bottom of the food chain, and threaten boaters and others when they launch themselves into flight. Introduced in the southern United States to clean up water treatment ponds, they escaped when floods overwhelmed those ponds in the 1990s, and began their watery march north.

Electrical barriers now are used in hopes of keeping the carp on the Mississippi side, but physical barriers – keeping the very waters separate – are increasingly seen as the best protection.

Changes made now, the groups said, could benefit, rather than penalize, the Chicago area, with increased flood control, water quality, transportation, and jobs.

The two groups did not seek a single solution. Through the engineering firm HDR, Inc., they considered about 20 possible barrier locations, examined alternatives for economy and efficiency, and presented from them three approaches:

Downriver – A singe barrier below the confluence of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Cal-Sag Channel and the Lockport Lock would cost up to $9.5 billion and would require just one barrier, but would have "significant impacts on water quality, transportation, and flood management," the report said;

Mid-System – A four-barrier system on the CAWS between Lockport and Lake Michigan; thriftiest at $4.27 billion, it "poses the fewest challenges for stormwater management, flood management, and transportation."

Near-Lake – An array of five barriers near the Lake Michigan shoreline would cost about $9.54 billion, and "poses significant challenges for flood management and transportation," according to the report.

In graphics included in the report, the costs of barriers themselves appear negligible compared to those of transportation support, water quality improvements, and flood control. David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, said barriers would cost about $150 million each.

Total costs of the Mid-System option, the least expensive, can be expressed as a cost of about one dollar per month, Eder said, for about 50 years, for every household in the Great Lakes basin, including those in Canada. Others would have costs double or triple that. Funding sources remain undetermined, he added.

Ullrich described the carp challenge as a "unique opportunity" to protect the two watersheds and Chicago's waterway system.

Camp said the reports shows that officials don't have to wait several years to get a proposal. As evidence mounts of the carps' approach on the Great Lakes, "It is more important than ever to pass our bill," he said.

Stabenow said the report overcomes earlier sky-high estimates. "This changes the numbers, to a range that's achievable, doable. I think it will help give us momentum."

Regarding her proposal and Camp's: "We're looking for some way to include this with other things going through the Senate and House," she said. The new study might help. "We hope that once people see something tangible," action will appear more possible.

"We'll try to find a way to get this (legislation) passed in some form as quickly as possible."

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