Lock closures to keep carp out could be hard, helpful
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Saturday, 06 February 2010 11:04

The coalition of agencies responsible for battling Asian carp is finally considering temporary lock closures on the Chicago shipping canal leading to the Great Lakes.

Three scenarios are under consideration and likely will be discussed at a White House carp summit scheduled Monday. They include closing the locks -- now open seven days a week -- from three or four days a week to two weeks out of every month, starting April 1. When the locks are closed, the agencies would step up efforts to find Asian carp, herd them into control zones and stun, net or poison them.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox was unimpressed. "That sounds as logical as keeping criminals in jail four days a week and hoping the other three days go OK," he said in a statement.

Challenges to closing locks

Proposals to close Chicago-area locks as much as three days each week would make barge operators' lives difficult but could provide more time to work on controlling Asian carp, which are poised to invade the Great Lakes, people concerned about the carp threat said Friday.

"It's a fairly significant shift," Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes in Chicago, said of discussions to close the locks from three days a week to two weeks every month. "I have to look at it more, but it's nice to see we're moving towards having a contingency strategy."

Still, the only satisfactory, permanent solution is to break the link between the Chicago shipping canal and the Great Lakes, he said. Without that, carp can always get through.
The Army Corps in Chicago said late Friday that no decision had been made on lock closures.

Very, very disruptive'

Barge operators were briefed on the possibility of lock closures during a four-hour meeting Friday and have a week to comment.

Any lock closures will be painful, said Lynn Muench, senior vice-president of the American Waterways Operators. Muench said barge operators still have questions about how periodic lock closures, which could begin April 1, would work.

"I suppose there is some scenario that could work, but I don't know what it would be," she said. "Mostly, it would be very, very disruptive and devastating."

Muench said operators were told that sections of the canal itself -- not just the locks -- would be closed for anti-carp operations, so barges couldn't be anywhere near the locks. Closures during the summer also would hurt passenger-carrying boats that travel the waterway, she said. The barges and boats can now travel without interruption, even in winter, from Houston to Chicago on the canal.

Pushing for closure

The attorney generals of five states and the province of Ontario, as well as members of Congress, have been pushing since December for an immediate closure of the locks. DNA evidence of Asian carp has been found in and near Lake Michigan, miles beyond the $9-million electric barrier built to hold the fish back.

But barge operators and the State of Illinois have steadfastly opposed closure because they say it would cost industry and local businesses millions of dollars. On Jan. 19, the Supreme Court denied a request to shut the locks. Various federal agencies have said all options were on the table to stop carp from entering the Great Lakes, but until now, they have not moved to close the locks. Besides boat operators, the City of Chicago objected because it needs the locks open to discharge water through the system during heavy rains.

But Friday, on the eve of a White House summit on Asian carp, the Army Corps of Engineers posted on its Web site several scenarios for partial lock closures. Those scenarios are expected to be discussed Monday at the White House session and Tuesday before Congress. The Corps oversees operation of the locks.

What would happen

The scenario highlighted in the Corps' document is to close the locks three to four days each week. During the closures, the Corps and other agencies would try to find and eradicate carp that have made their way into the Chicago shipping canal, in hopes of keeping them from moving further.

Officials would herd the fish into control zones where they could be poisoned or stunned by electrified boats. Some would be caught in nets or by commercial fishermen. Screens would be added to the gates of the locks. At the Wilmette pumping station north of Chicago, sluice gates used to bring water in from Lake Michigan would be closed and pumps used instead.

It's not clear how long the off-and-on closure of the locks would last. The locks involved would be a lock at Navy Pier in downtown Chicago on Lake Michigan and the O'Brien lock, which leads to Lake Michigan and to the Calumet River.

Fierce, flying Asian carp, which grow huge and are expected to out-compete native species for food, have made it through the Chicago canal to the edge of Lake Michigan, based on DNA evidence. No one knows how many fish might already be in the lake.

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