Feds' Asian carp plan all wet
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Sunday, 07 February 2010 12:43

Only government could come up with something as stupid as this: The new plan to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes is to close the Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal three or four days a week for the next couple of months.

It's another example that government agencies don't have a clue as to how great the threat from the carp is, or how angry large numbers of people are about the failure by government at state and federal levels to move against the threat years ago.

The carp debacle also has shown that there's more than one way to lie. Witness the Army Corps of Engineers' utter disregard for truth during last month's U.S. Supreme Court hearing on a request by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox for the emergency closure of an Illinois canal.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal is the vector by which Asian carp are threatening the ecology of the Great Lakes. And the Army Corps knew during last month's Supreme Court hearing that not only were Asian carp close to the lakes, DNA tests of the water in Calumet Harbor, Ill., indicated they already were there.

But the Corps, which runs the canal, withheld that crucial fact until after the Supreme Court decided against Cox's request, forcing a longer court process during which who knows many carp will reach the lakes.

That goes beyond political influence and bureaucratic stupidity. Cox has asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the decision. The Barack Obama administration should fire everyone involved in the decision to lie by omission.

And now we have evidence that while closing the canal would cause an economic loss of about $70 million, in the long run it would be a net benefit to the Chicago area by adding transportation jobs.

Dr. John Taylor, a business professor at Wayne State, has spent years studying shipping on the Great Lakes. He looked at the Chicago numbers and found that the $70-million cost of closing the canal represents about .0013% of a Chicago-area economy of about $520 billion.

The canal carries about 7-million tons of goods, which seems like a big number. But Taylor says it's the equivalent of two freight trains a day in a city that sees 500 trains daily. As for the cargo on the barges, a lot is bulk stuff like road salt, which is unloaded on the ground along the canal banks and hauled off in trucks.

"What difference does it make if it's unloaded where it is now or a mile away?" Taylor said in a telephone interview. "And while they may lose some jobs in the barge industry, they will pick up more in trucking and other activities associated with ground transport."

Taylor said dire predictions about the economic effects of closing the canal are exaggerated.

Biologists already are worried that invasive zebra and quagga mussels might pull the rug out from under Lake Michigan's food chain, decimating valuable game fish and creating a haven for unwanted algae and invasives.

The game-fish collapse has happened in Lake Huron, and Lake Erie recently has seen the growth of "dead zones," where nothing much can live but algae.

No one can say for sure that Asian carp will establish breeding populations in the Great Lakes. But we can see what has happened in parts of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, where Asian carp have nearly eliminated native species and make up 90% of the biomass.

If that were to happen in the Great Lakes, or even parts of the lakes like Saginaw Bay and Green Bay, then hordes of Asian carp sucking up nutrients like 40-pound zebra mussels could be the shove needed to upset the environmental house of cards.

So now we have the Corps' plan for an on-again, off-again closure of the canal. What I can't wait to see is the new federal agency that will be created to teach carp how to tell what day it is so they won't swim into Lake Michigan when the canal is open.

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