Carp barrier aid rejected
Written by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel - Jamoke   
Thursday, 10 November 2005 14:34

The ribbon will soon be cut on a brand-new, $9 million electric barrier built to keep the Asian carp from swimming up the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and infesting Lake Michigan, but Great Lakes lawmakers this week failed to persuade their fellow members in Congress to pay to turn it on.

A House-Senate conference committee earlier this week opted not to authorize and fund the estimated $250,000 it will cost to keep the juice flowing through the fish-zapping barrier, which was built largely with Army Corps dollars. It did, however, agree to continue to fund a controversial Army Corps study to improve the aged St. Lawrence Seaway, another pathway for foreign species to invade the Great Lakes.

The result of the carp barrier decision is that the state of Illinois will be forced to cover its operating and maintenance expenses, something Illinois officials have said they may have a difficult time doing.

Great Lakes advocates were, predictably, outraged that the federal government is not doing more to keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

The carp are so feared because, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the voracious filter feeders can grow up to 100 pounds and consume 40% of their body weight a day in plankton, a food source on which other Great Lakes fish species directly or indirectly depend.

"The Great Lakes governors, environmental organizations and the entire congressional delegation agree, this is the biggest threat to the Great Lakes and this is the best we can do - simply dump the burden on the state of Illinois?" said Dennis Schornack, U.S. chairman of the International Joint Commission, which oversees U.S.-Canada boundary water issues.

"I don't want to be the one to tell our grandchildren that the Great Lakes were turned into a carp pond because of foot-dragging and technicalities to dot all the I's and cross all the T's of government bureaucracy," Schornack said.

Authorization for federal barrier operation and maintenance could still come via two other pending bills, one of which - the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act - has been stalled for three years.

"It's a big problem," said Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. "It's troubling because we need to get this taken care of before the carp make it here and with respect to (federal funding), it's hard to know when or if either of those bills are going to pass."

The carp, which were imported decades ago by southern fish farmers, have been steadily migrating up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and have been found within 40 miles of the shores of Lake Michigan.

Great Lakes conservationists, meanwhile, were further dismayed by the news that the conference committee had agreed to give the Army Corps nearly $1.3 million to continue its multiyear study on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The agency initially explored a possible expansion of the struggling waterway that connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. After members of Congress balked at the prospect of expansion in 2002, the Corps was ordered to scale back its ambitions.

It is now working with Canada as well as other federal agencies to determine precisely what it will take to keep the U.S.- and Canadian-owned Seaway open for business for the next half century.

"It's kind of outrageous, in light of all the problems in the Great Lakes, that Congress is dumping another $1.285 (million) on this study," said Tim Eder, of the National Wildlife Federation. "It's a prime candidate for some pork that ought to be cut."

Albert Jacquez, U.S. boss of the Seaway, declined comment, referring questions to the Army Corps staff conducting the study. They could not be reached for comment.

Seaway study a long process

Conservationists noted that the Corps was initially supposed to wrap up this Seaway study late this year. Then last year it asked for another year extension. Now the language passed in the conference committee this week says the study can continue into 2007.

"When is this study going to end?" asked Jennifer Nalbone of the conservation group, Great Lakes United. "Our concern is this language allows the Corps and the binational study team to miss their deadline and receiving funding into 2007 that could be used for many other important projects, such as (carp) barrier work."

Marc Fortin of Transport Canada, one of the Corps' partners in the navigation study, said he is confident that the study team will have an interim report available by fall 2006.

The study is controversial because the Seaway, which opened in 1959, has never lived up to grand expectations that it would be the Midwest's gateway to the world. Overseas ships account for only about 7% of the traffic on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, but those ships have been blamed for carrying in almost 70% of the 62 foreign species that have invaded the Great Lakes since 1970.

The Great Lakes are now home to more than 180 invasive species, and a new one is discovered, on average, every six and a half months.

U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R-Green Bay) said he was disappointed that the carp barrier authorization was not included in the conference committee report, and that is one of the reasons he voted against the bill when it went to the full House on Wednesday.

Green, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, has been pushing for federal legislation that would make it illegal to import or transfer Asian carp across state lines.

He said the federal government needs to do more to keep the fish out of the Great Lakes.

"The issue of invasive species is not merely an issue for Wisconsin or Illinois but for the entire region, and it is appropriate for the federal government to be taking over the operation of these barriers," he said.

The new barrier will replace a temporary barrier that has been in place since 2002. That one is wearing out, but there has been an interest in repairing it and keeping it as a backup in case the new barrier fails.

The new barrier, constructed mostly with Corps' funds with some help from Great Lakes states, should go into service early next year.

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