Sunday, Oct 21, 2018
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Tom Henry

COMMENTARY

Politicians flounder while Asian carp spawn a threat

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Should the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins be separated, even if the work costs as much as $9.5 billion? You bet.

Will it happen? Probably not.

A new engineering analysis shows that such a massive task could be completed for the price of some big-city road and tunnel projects. Yet it remains doubtful the Obama Administration and the President's home state of Illinois have the political will to get behind such a plan.

The study was done to light a fire under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has given itself until 2015 to develop options for the Chicago Area Waterway System.

Commissioned by the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, the report shows that severing a man-made series of canals that have linked the two basins for decades would be an expensive, but not necessarily a Herculean, engineering feat.

The two groups side with a long list of fishery biologists who believe the region should not stop short of a separation of the basins to keep out Asian carp.

The idea of connecting the two basins dates to 1848. In 1885, an epidemic of typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and other waterborne diseases resulted in 90,000 deaths -- 12 percent of Chicago's population.

Those deaths led to the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, completed in 1900. The Calumet-Sag Channel followed in 1922. The two canals formed a diversion that moved water out of Lake Michigan so fast that the U.S. Supreme Court imposed limits.

Since 1930, the high court has not allowed the Lake Michigan diversion to flow faster than 3,200 cubic feet (23,937 gallons) a second. That's nearly 2.1 billion gallons a day. The volume is so large that it keeps the water levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron down 2.5 inches, which affects the region's shipping and environment.

At issue now is how much the Obama Administration and the State of Illinois are willing to gamble with the future of the Great Lakes region's $7 billion fishery industry. Lake Erie, with more fish than all the other Great Lakes combined, has the most at stake. Most of the fish are in the western basin near Toledo.

Under a best-case scenario, a separation would take until 2029 to complete. That's only if the Corps picks up its pace, something it hasn't done despite a bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) that calls for expedited deadlines.

President Obama didn't create this mess. Asian carp were imported by southern fish hatcheries to eat pond scum decades ago. Scientists long warned about floods that could let them slip into the Mississippi River.

The Obama Administration's response, though, essentially has been a $100 million Band-Aid. It has tried options ranging from poisons to a greater investment in a series of electrical barriers originally built to keep out other exotic fish.

It has stayed clear of separating the basins because of what that could do to Chicago-area shipping and tourism industries. The administration has worked with Illinois before the U.S. Supreme Court to stave off legal challenges from Ohio, Michigan, and other states.

The new report includes less-expensive designs of $3.26 billion and $4.27 billion to separate the basins. There's little reason to believe those designs will get nibbles either.

The government's molasses-like response can be seen in the fact that it didn't get around to banning the largest of four Asian carp species, bighead carp, from importation until last year.

It can be seen in a delayed message to Congress about how many migrating silver carp already had become a threat to the Maumee River by entering Indiana's Wabash River, long before U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) learned about it.

Mr. Levin, co-chairman of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, was miffed that this revelation was sprung on him in 2010 during a Washington hearing, despite Congress' high-profile focus on Chicago for years. A Fort Wayne flood, he learned, could give carp a more destructive entry point than Chicago to the Great Lakes.

The Maumee River is the region's top tributary for spawning. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources responded with a 10-foot-high fence to bisect a marsh that could connect the Wabash and Maumee rivers.

The $200,000 barrier isn't seen as a permanent solution. It probably wouldn't stop yearlings.

So we are mired in a crisis that experts know how to fix, but politicians and lobbyists endlessly quarrel about.

It's familiar territory. It's maddening. And it cries for leadership.

Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: thenry@theblade.com

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