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Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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Published: Friday, 2/28/2014

COMMENTARY

Move to block carp from the Great Lakes hits rough water

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Lessenberry Lessenberry
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DETROIT — Virtually everybody agrees that Asian carp are a serious threat to everything that matters about the Great Lakes.

Now, a conservative member of Congress from Michigan wants to do something radical about it before the lakes are destroyed.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, of suburban Detroit, is not usually eager to support new spending programs. But she grew up on the water; her family owned a boating supply shop.

She knows Asian carp are at the point of getting into Lake Michigan. If they get established, they will present a major threat to the fishing, swimming, and recreational boating industries of the Great Lakes.

This month, she introduced a bill that would order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin work within a year to seal off the man-made Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that connects the Mississippi River with Lake Michigan.

That canal — actually a series of canals — was dug in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in part to divert sewage from Chicago. Today, barge operators use it to ferry cargo.

There are legitimate fears that the canals are becoming a conduit for the lakes’ destruction. Two species of Asian carp, bighead and silver, have been working their way up the Mississippi River ever since they escaped from catfish farms in Arkansas during flooding in the 1980s.

They are far larger and more destructive than domestic carp. Bighead carp can top 100 pounds. Silver carp, which can weigh as much as 60 pounds, have a nasty habit of jumping out of the water when excited, on occasion injuring people and damaging boats.

Both species suck up vast amounts of food, which starves native species of fish. Biologists say that if they get established in the world’s largest source of freshwater, getting them out will be nearly impossible.

In January, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a long-awaited report on the problem. Almost everyone found the report disappointing. It presented eight options but recommended none.

The option of sealing off the canals would, the Corps said, take 25 years and cost as much as $18 billion. Those figures were greeted with skepticism by a wide variety of politicians and others, including U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo). She said stopping the carp “demands immediate attention and action.”

That view motivated Ms. Miller. In an interview, she said that sealing the canals would be the only sure way of keeping the carp out of the lakes. The canals should never have been dug, she said. By closing them, she added, “we would just be undoing the damage we did to Mother Nature years ago.”

The odds against her bill passing seem long. She has only one co-sponsor, a fellow Republican from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Ms. Miller admitted her approach has been attacked by some in her party, including U.S. Rep. Dan Coats of Indiana, who fears the economic damage that would be done to barge operators and shipping interests.

While she hasn’t gotten a lot of backing from her colleagues, she has received enthusiastic support from a newspapers in the United States and Canada, and from environmental and conservation groups, including the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

“The cost of doing nothing is too high,” she told me. On that point, few disagree. But there seems to be a profound lack of urgency in stopping the greatest threat the Great Lakes may have ever known.

● Conyers concerns: The Rev. Horace Sheffield III turned some heads last week when he announced he would take on U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D., Detroit) in the August primary. Not by the mere fact of his announcement, but in what he said about his opponent.

“The congressman is not all there,” he said in a radio interview. Reverend Sheffield alleged that Mr. Conyers’ aides make most of the key decisions, and implied he was a senile puppet who was mainly told what to do.

Few people jumped to the defense of the nearly 85-year-old congressman, other than those who are on Mr. Conyers’ payroll. The minister’s remarks echo what others have said in private for years. Stories about Mr. Conyers’ odd behavior are common, as are accounts of the chaotic nature of his office.

However, few observers think it likely that Reverend Sheffield poses a major threat to the nation’s second longest-serving congressman (Michigan’s John Dingell, who is retiring, is first). Mr. Conyers will have been in the House for half a century next January.

During the past two decades, opponents have made spirited attempts to challenge Mr. Conyers, only to see him win with ease.

Even if Mr. Conyers were vulnerable, Reverend Sheffield is scarcely an ideal opponent. Before his announcement, he was in the news this month when he turned himself in on misdemeanor domestic-violence charges filed by his estranged wife.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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