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Army engineers push Asian carp barrier

  • Asian-Carp-Great-Lakes-5

    In this June 2012 file photo, Asian carp, jolted by an electric current from a research boat, jump from the Illinois River near Havana, Ill. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers release a draft report on measures at a crucial site in Illinois that could prevent invasive Asian carp from reaching Lake Michigan.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Great-Lakes-Asian-Carp

    In this Jan. 2010 file photo, Asian bighead carp swim in an exhibit at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Army Corps of Engineers is recommending the electrical barrier near Chicago that has been used to deter Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan be enhanced at a cost of $275 million with complex noise generators, water jets, an engineered channel, and other structural improvements.

The proposal, released Monday in a 488-page study, is a far cry from what many Great Lakes scientists have long seen as the ultimate solution, a complete separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds. But observers say it’s also far more affordable and politically expedient than separating those watersheds, which the Corps estimate would cost $18.4 billion in a January, 2014, study.

Marc Smith, policy director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor, said attention shifted to the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Ill., after Great Lakes officials outside of Illinois realized they were not getting the support of Chicago-area politicians who were more determined to protect the powerful shipping industry than the region’s $7 billion fishery.

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“There’s no stomach for that,” Mr. Smith said, adding that the $18.4 billion price tag also made complete separation a hard sell — at least for now. “When we went all in on physical separation, we weren’t getting anywhere.”

So the focus was shifted to the Brandon Road Lock and Dam, which several officials have described as a “choke point” for trying to keep the carp out. That dam is part of an electrical barrier along a series of man-made waterways built in the Chicago area decades ago to connect the watersheds for shipping and reverse the natural flow of the water for sewage treatment. Other proposed enhancements include a flushing lock and a mooring area.

Six alternatives were considered.

The Corps would pay for 65 percent of the estimated $275 million of work outlined, or $179 million. The other $96 million would be paid by non-federal sources.

In its report, the Corps called its plan the “Technology Alternative — Complex Noise with Electric Barrier” plan.

That option is recommended “because it meets the project objective by reducing the risk of Mississippi River basin [aquatic invasive species] establishment in the Great Lakes basin to the maximum extent possible, and it provides for continued navigation,” the Corps said in its report, adding that the plan “will be most effective if the electric dispersal barrier operates continuously at optimal parameters to deter fish.”

The Corps is taking comments on its recommendation until Sept. 21. It is making plans for two public meetings.

Jill Wingfield, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in Ann Arbor, which was established decades ago to help the Great Lakes states fend off invasive species, said the commission still views a complete separation of the watersheds as the long-term solution, but is pleased movement is under way to do something at Brandon Road Lock and Dam. It views the proposed work there as an interim measure, she said.

“The most comforting piece to it is this integrated approach to control,” Ms. Wingfield said, adding that a multi-pronged strategy has helped fend off one of the region’s worst invasives, the vampire-like sea lamprey.

She said the commission is pleased a bipartisan coalition pushed for the Brandon Road Lock and Dam study’s release. It was to be released on Feb. 28, but was withheld by the Trump Administration, according to several members of Congress.

“The commission continues to maintain that hydraulic separation is the long-term solution,” Ms. Wingfield said. “As an interim step, [the new Corps report] appears the most viable action in the near-term. That doesn’t mean we won’t continue to push for a complete separation.”

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), co-chair of the House Great Lakes Task Force, said she was encouraged by the recommendation.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D., Dearborn) agreed, stating that Asian carp “have the potential to decimate the waters we all love and depend upon, as well as our region’s $7 billion fishing and $16 billion boating industries.”

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) said he worked with other members of Congress to get the report issued because of the damage of Asian carp.

“It is important the Corps remain on schedule to finalize the plan by January of 2019,” he said.

The issue has long pitted the Chicago-area shipping industry against Lake Erie sportsmen. The shipping industry wants the status quo while Lake Erie — which spawns more fish than the rest of the Great Lakes combined — could have the most to lose if Asian carp are able to colonize the lake system, regardless of the entry point.

The report can be viewed online here.

On June 22, a silver Asian carp — the type so sensitive to boat motor vibrations they flop out of water — was found nine miles from Lake Michigan near the T.J. O’Brien Lock and Dam, upstream from a series of electrical barriers designed to keep it out.

On June 22, a silver Asian carp — the type so sensitive to boat motor vibrations they flop out of water — was found nine miles from Lake Michigan near the T.J. O’Brien Lock and Dam, upstream from a series of electrical barriers designed to keep it out.

Howard Learner, Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center director, said the report “makes clear it’s time for serious preventative actions to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.”

Four environmental groups — the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Prairie Rivers Network, and the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club — said the Brandon Road Lock and Dam is “a logical choke point in the system” to focus efforts on, but said it is imperative the Corps listen carefully to the public.

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079 or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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