Camera captures fish swimming past carp barrier

Chicago — A member of Congress proposed legislation earlier this month that would order the federal government to cut off links in Chicago waterways between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River system to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp and other invasive species.

The bill introduced by Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican, would authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct barriers in rivers and canals that were reconfigured more than a century ago to connect the two giant watersheds. That project boosted waterborne commerce but created a pathway through which fish, mussels and other aquatic animals and plants could stake out new territories and compete with native species.

“That should never have been allowed to happen and certainly would never be allowed today,” Miller said, adding that the linkage also allows vast amounts of Great Lakes water to flow toward the Mississippi. The linkage has allowed nuisance species such as the round goby and zebra and quagga mussels to escape the Great Lakes and infest the Mississippi and other waterways. But the threat that Asian carp pose to the Great Lakes has intensified the search for answers.

In a report last month, the Army Corps presented eight options for dealing with the problem, two of which included physically separating the two watersheds. Both carry estimated price tags of at least $15 billion and a 25-year timetable for completion.

The Corps has said it’s up to Congress to decide which measures to undertake. Spokeswoman Sarah Gross said that the agency would not comment on pending legislation.

The Corps, which has hosted nine public meetings to answer questions and take feedback, scheduled additional sessions in Portage, Ind., and Buffalo, N.Y., she said. The deadline for submitting written comments has been extended to March 31.

Mark Biel, chairman of an Illinois business coalition called UnLock Our Jobs, said his group opposes both as too costly and disruptive to shipping and pleasure boating in the Chicago area while worsening the risk of floods. If the government chooses physical separation, opponents likely will file a lawsuit that would delay matters further, he said.

“We need a realistic solution that is affordable and politically palatable,” Biel said.

His group favors a Corps alternative that would cost just $68 million and take relatively modest steps using chemicals, nets and watercraft inspections.

Critics say those measures would be inadequate. A recent University of Notre Dame study found that physical separation would stop 95 to 100 percent of Asian carp, while other methods would be markedly less effective.

If enacted, Miller’s bill would require the Army Corps to begin designing a separation project within 180 days. When finished, the agency would have 180 days to begin construction.

The bill would allow federal funding but doesn’t specify an amount, Miller spokeswoman Salley Wood said.

Fish seen crossing barrier

A video obtained by a Wisconsin newspaper reveals dozens of little fish swimming upstream through the swath of electrified water on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, only about 35 miles downstream from Chicago’s lakeshore.

Reporters with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel claim the barrier’s weakness was exposed on a chilly late July day when former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Aaron Parker and colleagues dropped their sonar cameras in the electrified patch of the canal to confirm lab results that indicated the barrier was operating at a voltage strong enough to stop even small fish. Little fish need a bigger jolt because they have less surface area to soak up electricity.

It didn’t take long for the grainy images on Parker’s laptop to indicate the lab tests were wrong.

Among all the chunks of trash, effluent and whatnot floating downstream and away from Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline lurked something nobody wanted to see – flecks of white pushing in the opposite direction, passing right through the strongest point of the barrier’s electric field. Parker instantly knew what it was. Trash doesn’t wiggle upstream.

Parker said none of the fish appeared to be larger than four inches.

The 2.3-volt level had been believed strong enough to stop all but the tiniest fish, based on Army Corps’ lab tests. 

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