Seize the moment: Separate the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds
Two recent news items about invasive species and the Great Lakes — namely about Asian carp and sea lampreys — have a serious take-home message: Quit the foot draggingand get moving on a permanent separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds at Chicago.
One item described the annual saga of control efforts against the invasive lamprey, which entered the upper Lakes — above Niagara Falls — with the construction of the Welland Canal bypass in establishing the St. Lawrence Seaway.
For more than 50 years U.S. and Canadian fisheries agencies have had to treat tributary streams where lampreys spawn with a chemical that kills larval lamprey without killing fish and everything else. It has cost $400 million over the period — I suspect that is just for the chemical treatments and not for the millions of dollars of scientific research and testing that went into finding that magic lampricide bullet in the first place. We lost a valuable commercial lake trout fishery, among other things, over that one.
The lamprey, of course, is just one of the 190-odd, or more invasive species that have cost Great Lakes states and provinces billions of dollars in fisheries losses, damaged water intakes (zebra and quagga mussels), and more during the history of the Seaway. All the while the private, often offshore-owned shipping industry profits at our public expense.
So, will the potential threat to the $7 billion-a-year Great Lakes fisheries posed by the now too-familiar Asian carp be averted? That brings us to news item two:
Over the weekend, at the meeting of the Council of Great Lakes Governors on Mackinaw Island, Mich., Illinois boss Pat Quinn publicly acknowledged that separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds is the ultimate solution to the carp threat. That’s big, inasmuch as till now Illinois-Chicago political and business cabal have vehemently opposed watershed separation as bad for their business. That’s a narrow-minded, self-interested approach, however typical.
Now at least Quinn and Illinois have poked a toe in the water in favor of reestablishing a permanent barrier between the watersheds; the natural barrier was carved open more than a century ago initially so that Chicago sewage could flow south. Right now we continue to rely on questionable electric barriers in the rivers near Chicago, and commercial fishermen downriver to net out at least some of the troublesome carp. Quinn of course attached a host of qualifiers to his change-of-attitude, including the usual who’s-going-to-pay-for-it gambit (answer: all of us, one way or another).
But it is a start in a new direction, a break in a deadlock, a cracking-open of a once-locked door. This needs to be exploited quickly, to the max. Asian carp wait for no man.