Carp-fighting lawsuit doesn't aim to flood Chicago
Written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel   
Monday, 18 January 2010 20:58
Opponents of the Asian carp lawsuit that takes aim at Chicago for its unnatural link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River say the stakes could not be higher.

That link - the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal - is a highway for barges that carry raw materials to fuel the nation's third-largest city. It also carries the collective flush of Chicagoland.

Mess with the canal, say its operators, and you not only threaten Chicago's industrial might, you had also better get ready to deal with the "disastrous effect" of a city flooded by its own waste.

One problem: Nobody is asking Chicago to drown in sewage in the name of carp prevention.

The State of Michigan, leader of a five-state coalition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reopen a lawsuit over the operation of the canal, has indeed asked that two navigation locks at the top end of the canal system temporarily close to block oversized carp. Biologists believe they may now be within about a mile of the lakeshore. But Michigan acknowledges that gates at those structures serve as safety valves in big rains; they open to allow high water in the canal system to flow backward and into Lake Michigan - instead of into Chicago streets and basements.

That's why Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox is asking the court to shut the gates "except as required to prevent significant flooding that threatens public health or safety."

"Michigan is not asking to inundate Chicago to protect the Great Lakes," says Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based conservation group. "What they're asking for is that reasonable measures be taken until we reduce the imminent threat of an invasion."

Neither is anyone denying that closing the locks, even temporarily, would severely disrupt barge traffic, but perhaps not to the extent that some Chicago politicians would have the public believe.

In arguing against the Michigan lawsuit, U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), for example, says some 19 million tons of cargo - coal, petroleum products, salt and chemicals that numerous industries rely on - move through three of the canal system's navigation locks annually.

But Michigan's request doesn't ask to shut the down the lock that handles the bulk of that traffic.

The locks proposed for closure, however, do handle a flood of recreational boat traffic in warm months.

An estimated 700,000 tourists annually move through one of the locks - near Navy Pier - and gross revenue last year for just four of the companies that handle those passengers was $18 million.

But proponents for shutting the locks say they want it done as an emergency measure at this point, and all the locks may be open by summertime when barge and recreational traffic hits its peak.
Shutdown would buy time

The idea behind a lock shutdown now is to buy some time. Recent water samples in the canal have detected the presence of Asian carp within about a mile of the Lake Michigan shoreline.

The plan supported by some conservation groups is to poison or shock the waterways near the lake in an attempt to eradicate any fish that have breached a new electric fish barrier about 20 miles downstream from Lake Michigan.

That barrier was turned on in April, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not crank up the voltage high enough to repel all sizes of fish until August, when DNA sampling revealed the north-migrating carp had arrived just below the barrier.

And while even a temporary closure of the locks would be a brutal blow for the barge industry, it may pale compared with what's at stake on the other side; the Great Lakes are home to a $7 billion commercial and recreational fishery that biologists say the plankton-gobbling Asian carp could ruin if they get into the lakes.

"They are aquatic vacuum cleaners," says Charlie Wooley, deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They will come in and clean out our native fish and sport fish."

The potential impact extends beyond the fishing industry. The jumping carp have essentially ruined fun time for water skiers and boaters on heavily infested waters of the Mississippi basin because of the dangers of human-fish collisions.

This is not a small concern to the Great Lakes states, which are home to more than 4 million registered recreational boats - about a third of the U.S. total.

Some Illinois politicians don't think these considerations outweigh the damage a lock closure could put on Chicago businesses.

"At a time when we're working to put the economy back on track, we should not be doing anything that will compromise our efforts to put people back to work," said Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.).

Other lawsuit opponents point out that closing the locks won't be a sure fix. The fish could still ride their way into the lakes if floods hit. They might also sneak through holes in the aged structures.

And they argue there's a good chance there aren't even any Asian carp in the area to breach the leaky locks.
Where are the fish?

In August, DNA tests started rolling in, indicating the fish had reached the barrier and then, eventually, bypassed it.

Yet no actual specimens, live or dead, have been found above the barrier.

That, according to President Barack Obama's Great Lakes czar, Cameron Davis, is a big deal when it comes to making big decisions.

Davis said that before the federal government decides things "like closing the locks, like potentially flooding northeastern Illinois, you'd better be a bit more sure than just relying on (DNA) sampling . . . you want to follow up with some kind of alternative methods to confirm they exist."

Davis' official title is senior adviser to Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson, and his statements would seem to contradict a recently released report from an EPA team that visited the labs of environmental DNA pioneer David Lodge at the University of Notre Dame.

That team scrutinized the practices, equipment and quality controls at the lab and determined that Lodge's "eDNA" testing is "sufficiently reliable and robust in reporting a pattern of detection that should be considered actionable in a management context."

In other words, if the tests show the fish are there, you can reasonably classify a body of water as if it were infested.

That's evidently not the case at the moment.

At a meeting of biologists and other technical experts on the carp conundrum last week, Army Corps' barrier manager Chuck Shea acknowledged that most of the scientists in the room accept the accuracy of the DNA testing.

The problem is getting the public to buy in.

"There are a lot of people out there that need more convincing," Shea said. "And to actually recover a body would mean broader support from the public."

One problem with this is that if you wait long enough, that fish might indeed be found . . . in Lake Michigan.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged he was in a dicey situation when he convened the public hearing at the Shedd Aquarium last week to defend Illinois' opposition to a lock shutdown.

"If we're going to take a look at this honestly . . . there are no simple and easy answers," Durbin said.

The Supreme Court could make a decision on the request to close the locks as soon as Tuesday.

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