The corps is to be commended for clarifying what has long been understood by those of us who cherish the lakes — that protecting them will be a massive and expensive undertaking.
It is now up to us — your elected representatives — to summon the national political will necessary to implement a solution that will preserve our most vital natural resource and the largest source of surface freshwater reserves on the planet. The only way to achieve that goal, in my view, is to reverse the century-old mistake that connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system through the Chicago canals.
Long before the Asian carp threat came to dominate the debate, I was an advocate for the separation of the two watersheds and an end to diversion of Great Lakes water through the canals. Although the Chicago diversion may have served the purposes of an emerging 19th-Century economy, that justification has long since expired, and it would never be contemplated, much less permitted, today.
At a time when the Great Lakes water levels have been near historic lows — wreaking havoc on commercial and recreational navigation and imposing onerous dredging costs on taxpayers — the Chicago diversion is a luxury we can no longer afford.
Correcting our historic blunder will be difficult. The Army Corps report estimates that complete separation of the two watersheds would impact commercial navigation on the Chicago-area canals valued at between $210 million and $250 million. The cost of mitigating local water quality and flood risks is estimated at $13 billion to $15.1 billion. But the national impact of inaction, and the threat it poses to the Great Lakes, is incalculable.
While the report recognizes that threat, it does so without a necessary sense of urgency (projecting time lines of up to 25 years before barriers to invasive species would be effective). The Army Corps has also failed to adequately monitor the Chicago diversion. An annual report on the amount of water flowing through the canal system is now nearly five years overdue. But the corps has produced a reasonable set of options for Congress to consider. It’s time for us to choose the one we know will work — separation of the watersheds — and run with it.
Protecting the Great Lakes is an issue of national significance that deserves a bipartisan, national response. The American people have long recognized our obligation to protect vital natural resources. In the recent past, we have devoted billions of taxpayer dollars to fortifying the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Mississippi Delta in Louisiana and restoring the Florida Everglades. The Great Lakes deserve the same kind of consideration.
Candice S. Miller, a Republican from Harrison Township, represents Michigan’s 10th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.