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Study calls for permanent Asian carp barrier

by Candice Miller on February 9, 2012

Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Study calls for permanent Asian carp barrier
Recommendation is to permanently separate Lake Michigan from Mississippi River basin
By Jim Bloch, Voice Reporter
Invasion of the Great Lakes
A new study recommends building a barrier or series of barriers to stop Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species from migrating into Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin through the Chicago Area Waterway System – and to prevent invasive species from migrating the opposite direction, as zebra mussels have already done.
Such a barrier would restore what had been a natural divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basins until the building of the 28-mile Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900. It was designed to use water from Lake Michigan to flush sewage from the Chicago River into the Illinois River and eventually to the Mississippi River. More than a century later, the Chicago Area Waterway System is a 130-mile system of locks, natural rivers and constructed canals that encompasses even a chunk of northwest Indiana.
The report, called “Restoring the Natural Divide” and released Jan. 31, was the joint product of the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.
U.S. Representative Candice Miller, who represents Michigan’s 10th District and co-chairs the bipartisan U.S. House Great Lakes Task Force, praised the study.
“Today, we are encouraged by the release of this study outlining the full options for separating of the Chicago area locks, as well as other separation and modernization alternatives,” said Miller in a statement. “We all know there will be a negative impact that will have to be addressed within the Chicago area with closing the locks – however, that impact pales in comparison to the damage that will be done if the Asian carp becomes established in the Great Lakes.”
The Asian carp were introduced intentionally in the Louisiana Delta in the 1970s to control plankton and algae in catfish farms. Mississippi River floods in the early 1990s overwhelmed the farms, releasing the highly reproductive fish, which can grow to 100 pounds, into the big river. The Asian carp are one of the most voracious of aquatic invasive species and may consume as much as 20 percent of their body weight in food per day. They quickly made their way upstream to Chicago. Electric barriers in the sanitary and ship canal have prevented an invasion of Lake Michigan.
“Asian carp threaten native fish populations because they grow rapidly, reproduce quickly, and consume vast quantities of phytoplankton and zooplankton, the foundation of the food chain in a healthy aquatic ecosystem,” the report said. “As a result, they out-compete native fish and disrupt the natural balance of the ecosystem. In addition, silver carp, one species of Asian carp, are easily startled by boat motors and leap out of the water, threatening recreational boaters and anglers.”
Asian carp are not the only invasive threat to the system.
“More than 250 non-native species are already established in one or both of the basins, and invasive species cost the Great Lakes region alone an estimated $200 million annually,” the report quoted.
A number of other invasive species are at the doorstep of Lake Michigan, the document goes on to state.
The study proposes three alternatives for constructed barriers, named by their proximity to Lake Michigan: the Down River, Mid-System, and Near Lake alternatives.
The report emphasizes that in order to be successful, any alternative must sustain the Chicago Area Waterway System’s “ability to support recreation, manage flooding and transport people and goods,” in the words of the executive committee members Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, Pat Quinn, governor of Illinois, and George Heartwell, mayor of Grand Rapids.
The report does not recommend a specific alternative, but notes the Mid-System plan is the least expensive.
The Mid-System alternative would cost $3.26-$4.27 billion and would be rolled out in phases – a characteristic of each alternative – through 2029. It would involve building four barriers – one on the South Branch of the Chicago River and one each on the Calumet, Grand Calumet and Little Calumet rivers. The barriers would be the least expensive component of the project at $140 million. Flood management, water quality and transportation – a system of lifts and intermodal facilities to allow existing commercial and recreation traffic to continue to flourish – could each top $1 billion.
The costs would likely be spread out over a half-century. If households in both the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins participated in cost-sharing, the price-tag could be as low as $4 per year levied on water bills. In addition to cleaner water, better flood protection and state-of-the-art shipping facilities, the project could save the Great Lakes region as much as $10 billion in control efforts and overall damage from invasive aquatic species, the report said.
Because the separation project has the potential of affecting so many Americans – the Mississippi River watershed holds about 40 percent of the U.S. population and the Great Lakes provide drinking water for 35 million citizens – it is ideal for federal participation.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineer study of the separation is due to be completed in 2015. The GLC and its partners hope to impact that study with theirs.
“It is my hope that this study will be a useful tool in calling on Congress and the administration to support the separation of the waterways and ensure a permanent solution to preventing the Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes,” said Miller. “This action is necessary and achievable. The Great Lakes are an environmental treasure to both our economy and natural resources, protecting them is of the utmost importance.”

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