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Chicago’s Looming Asian Carp Problem—What You Should Know

CARPOCALYPSE NOW: Even if you’ve never been pummeled by agitated Asian carp, these fish represent a major threat. Preventing them from entering Lake Michigan could cost taxpayers a bundle—and, depending on whom you ask, flood your basement and taint your tap water too. Here’s what you need to know.

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Jeanne Gang Q&A
Superstar architect and MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang on a potential solution to the Asian carp problem »

PLUS: Hear Gang talk about her visionary plan for the Chicago River at a panel (led by Chicago editor Geoffrey Johnson) at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (2430 N. Cannon Dr.; 773-755-5100) on December 7 at 7 p.m. For more information, go to naturemuseum.org.

Meanwhile, Illinois’s neighbors weren’t waiting around—they were heading to the courts. Led by Mike Cox, Michigan’s attorney general, several states (including Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) sought the immediate closure of the two Chicago-area locks to protect the $7 billion Great Lakes fishing industry. Cox initially sought a hearing in the U.S. Supreme Court, which repeatedly rebuffed him, for reasons it declined to explain. But in a memo, Elena Kagan, now an associate justice on the court but in early 2010 the solicitor general, argued that, given the potentially huge negative impact to businesses and public safety, there was insufficient evidence to warrant closing the locks.

Cox did get a hearing in the district courts, where he asked for a preliminary injunction to close the locks. Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. ruled in December 2010 that Michigan and its allies had failed to demonstrate that “the potential harm [to the Great Lakes was] either likely or imminent.” (Though Cox is no longer Michigan’s attorney general, his quest for a permanent injunction is still in play; it’s unlikely to go before a judge any sooner than late 2012, if then.) In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed Dow’s decision, though it left the door open for the district court to “revisit the question.”

That kind of language keeps Mark Biel awake at night. The executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois and chairman of the trade group Unlock Our Jobs, Biel worries that closing the locks or installing a permanent barrier would be an economic nightmare for companies that rely on traffic through the canal. “I’m not saying [the carp threat] isn’t something to be concerned about,” he explains. “But with 18 pathways into the Great Lakes, the canal is the one that’s guarded like Fort Knox. If carp get into the Great Lakes, it’s not going to be through the Chicago water system.”

Indeed, a more vulnerable spot may lie 165 miles southeast of Chicago, near Fort Wayne, Indiana, in a 705-acre wetland called Eagle Marsh. During a flood, the marsh could link the Wabash River, where the carp are present, and the Maumee River, which flows into Lake Erie—a possibility that last year prompted the Corps of Engineers to install mesh fencing across a section of the marsh.

The corps has also launched a comprehensive study to assess threats to the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds from all invasive species and lay out a plan to counter them. The study’s scheduled release date: 2015. Dave Wethington, the study’s project manager, says that much time is necessary to resolve such a complex issue. In the meantime, he points out, the corps continues to man its electric barriers, monitor the waterways, and consider other methods—such as underwater cameras and sonic cannon—to track and repel the carp.

“We’re fiddling away time,” says the NRDC’s Henderson, frustrated. His organization is looking for a solution of its own. Last year, it released a report advocating the same remedy proposed by the experts at the 2003 conference: Replace the natural barrier between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes that was breached by the canal.

If only it were that simple. “You can’t look at the barrier issue without looking at flood control, water quality, and transportation,” insists David Ullrich, who, after 30 years  with the Environmental Protection Agency, now serves as the executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. Sure, no one wants Asian carp in the Great Lakes. But no one wants contaminated water in the coffeepot either. Or rainwater—or sewage—pouring into the basement. Or higher taxes.

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So, you may be asking yourself, what’s the worst-case scenario if we let the carp frolic in Lakes Michigan, Erie, et al.? Pretty bad: Crucial phytoplankton and other microorganisms (an integral part of the lakes’ food chain) picked clean and replaced by algae that could strangle those inland seas. Fishing of native species—for fun or for profit—destroyed. No more water-skiing (boat motors send the carp flying). And that’s just for starters.

The best-case scenario would be that the Great Lakes prove inhospitable to carp. “The waterways here are not really a conducive environment for them,” says David St. Pierre, the executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, who, granted, may be a little biased. But nobody really knows either way.

And what if a permanent barrier is put in place—essentially undoing the awesome century-old work of those visionary Chicagoans? The likelihood of flooding and tainted tap water might increase. And the cargo-laden barges and recreational boats, which rely on freely navigable Chicago waterways, would find their travel impeded.

No study has projected the economic effects (and the corps has declined to hazard a guess). But in 2010, Joseph Schwieterman, a public service management professor at DePaul University, estimated the cost of closing the two Chicago-area locks at $1.3 billion a year. That doesn’t include the impact of lowered tax revenues, lost employment opportunities, or the diminished value of the properties along Chicago’s waterways.

Nor does it include the cost of implementing and maintaining the waterway separation. That could vary widely, depending on what gets built. For example, the NRDC solution includes a plan for pumps that would send water pouring across the barrier (after it had been screened for any invasive organisms). That means the river would continue to flow away from Lake Michigan, lessening the potential for flooding or tainted water resulting from the project. NRDC spokesman Josh Mogerman says that the system might cost between $80 million and $120 million.

Should the flow of the Chicago River actually be re-reversed—another option—costs would skyrocket. That’s because city officials would have to remove all the heavy metals and other industrial waste on the bottom of the river before they could think of sending the water, once again, back into Lake Michigan.

In the meantime, we wait. And Betty DeFord plans next year’s fishing tournament. “You can see all the pictures and YouTubes you want,” she says, “but until you experience the carp firsthand, you have no idea what they’re like. You don’t want these fish where you live.”


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