TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, widely accused of moving too slowly to prevent Asian carp and other exotic species from invading the Great Lakes, will release a short list of possible solutions next year to quicken the process, officials said Tuesday.
Previously, the corps had insisted it would need until late 2015 to recommend a permanent fix — a timetable challenged by five states in a federal lawsuit and legislation proposed in Congress. Critics say faster action is needed as huge, aggressive carp that have infested the Mississippi River and many of its tributaries bear down on the lakes, where they would gobble up food needed by native species and further disrupt ailing ecosystems.
Obama administration officials told The Associated Press ahead of an announcement scheduled for Tuesday that the corps will pick up the pace under a revised strategy in which it no longer will devise a single preferred method. Instead, the agency will put forward several options and leave it to Congress and the public to decide which they prefer.
“This new step will result in a more focused path forward that could mean faster implementation of a permanent solution for protecting our Great Lakes from Asian carp,” said John Goss, the Asian Carp program director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Officials acknowledged the new approach won’t guarantee that a final solution will be carried out any sooner. When that happens will depend on Congress, which must choose a plan and pay for it. But lawmakers and their constituents will get an earlier start on debating the alternatives, said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.
The change also means the Army Corps won’t spend the next several years crafting a single plan that Congress might reject. Instead, the corps will wait until Congress makes a selection to do more detailed feasibility and design work.
The corps will list “a select few” options but hasn’t decided how many, said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly. The study also will estimate costs and describe steps needed to offset any environmental damage they would cause.
A lawsuit filed by Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania demands completion of the corps study earlier than 2015. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Rep. Dave Camp, both of Michigan, have introduced legislation ordering the corps to finish within 18 months of the bill’s enactment. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a provision last week that would set a deadline of July 2014.
More than 185 aquatic species have invaded the Great Lakes over the past century, causing extensive economic and environmental damage. Blood-sucking sea lamprey decimated lake trout and other popular sport fish. Zebra and quagga mussels have clogged water intake pipes, spread disease and unraveled food webs.
Many scientists, environmentalists and sport angling groups fear silver and bighead carp — both Asian varieties that escaped from southern fish farms and sewage lagoons decades ago — would deal another huge blow to the lakes and their billion-dollar fishing and tourism industries.
But the region is divided over how to stop the carp, particularly in a network of Chicago-area rivers and canals that form a direct link between the Lake Michigan and Mississippi watersheds. Michigan officials unsuccessfully asked the U.S. Supreme court to order closure of shipping locks in the waterways, a move opposed by Chicago business interests that rely on waterborne cargo shipping.
The states’ lawsuit seeks a court order to permanently separate the two drainage basins. In a January report, the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative outlined several ways to sever the connection by placing barriers at key points to cut off the inter-basin water flow. Estimated costs ranged from $3.2 billion to $9.5 billion, and the report said it could take until 2029 to complete.
The Obama administration has spent more than $150 million on a short-term Great Lakes protection strategy that includes tracking and removing Asian carp in the Chicago waterways and reinforcing an electric barrier meant to halt fish migration. Critics say the barrier is inadequate because carp DNA has been detected beyond it, although federal officials say it’s performing well. The barrier lost power for 13 minutes last week for unknown reasons.
The Army Corps’ list of alternatives for a permanent fix will deal with the Chicago waterways and 18 other locations across the region that an earlier study identified as offering possible pathways between the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins.
“The Army Corps of Engineers understands and appreciates the importance of continuing with (the study) and preventing aquatic invasive species from reaching the Great Lakes,” Darcy said.