Getting Real About the Asian Carp Threat

by Joel Brammeier, Alliance for the Great Lakes President & CEO

The sunny spin from recent stories of keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, such as these (Biologists are making progress against Asian Carp, 9/2/16, and Researchers use arsenal of weapons to fight Asian carp, 8/22/16), risks blinding the reader to the reality in the water.

The leading edge of the young Asian carp invasion moved more than 60 miles closer to Lake Michigan in 2015. Electrical barriers are not effective against small fish. Ships and barges can pull fish through the barriers. These are not “glitches”, as one agency official put it, but design flaws that stem from a constraint the Corps and Congress have set: solve a national problem while maintaining all other business as usual.

We’re unlikely to grill our way out of this pickle. Fish harvest is a valuable tool to knock back carp numbers, but these efforts are being paid for by taxpayers. In more than a decade, no private business has been able to make harvest at a scale that matters to population control profitable. I’m not banking on that changing anytime soon.

Biological controls are enticing. The Great Lakes have experience there – the parasitic sea lamprey has been brought to heel through a combination of sterilization and physical barriers. The program costs more than $20 million a year, every year, and will never eliminate the lamprey.

But these solutions reflect a lack of ambition. All of them assume that the Chicago River and Lake Michigan have to remain Chicago’s backup reservoirs for sewage, the barge trade remains frozen in time, and that any changes to these waterways will make bad local flooding worse.

The problem is all of these assumptions are false. A real solution will recognize that the operation of the Chicago Area Waterway System has to change, and that Chicago and its Great Lakes neighbors in Michigan and Wisconsin can enjoy cleaner water and avoid being overrun by jumping carp.

The Chicago Waterways put the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins at risk because aquatic invasive species can still move freely between them. Despite this risk, the U.S. Army Corps tells us that it will be more than a decade before any new projects could be built to address this two-way threat.

You don’t need engineers and scientists to tell you that a fish that can migrate more than 60 miles in a year isn’t following that construction schedule.

Let’s get real about our needs and options. The City of Chicago recently released a new report, titled “Great Rivers Chicago” that recognizes the urgency of the threat and calls for aggressive management of the problem, including a real long-term preventative solution. Right now, the Army Corps is completing a feasibility study for retrofitting locks in the Chicago suburbs to stop the advance of Asian carp. It is the most urgent part of our vision to ultimately stop the movement of invaders between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. Members of Congress need to put the heat on the Corps to get that study wrapped quickly, and be ready to authorize and fund construction as soon as the report hits desks in Washington. The water infrastructure Chicago lives with today was first mapped out more than 120 years ago. If we are serious about stopping Asian carp, we need solutions that reflect the true ambition embedded in that great city and the Great Lakes region.

Posted September 29, 2016