Groups will study separating waterways
Written by The Courier News   
Wednesday, 28 December 2005 11:38

Because man meddled with nature 105 years ago, two of the world's major water systems — the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins — were joined together. Now it's time for man to think seriously about separating the two, a growing number of scientists, advocacy groups and public officials believe.

It may be the best way, they say, to stop the spread of invasive species between the basins. With that in mind, the Alliance for the Great Lakes has launched the first study of what would be a gargantuan undertaking costing billions of dollars.

"Everybody agrees" the idea needs to be examined, said Joel Brammeier, associate director of the Chicago-based Alliance. "And no one wants to wait."

In 1900, fearing that the putrescent Chicago River would poison drinking water drawn from Lake Michigan, city fathers pulled off a huge engineering feat and reversed the river's flow.

They also dug the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, linking the river — and the Great Lakes — to the Illinois River and ultimately to the Mississippi. That created not only a way for Chicago to get rid of its sewage but a new transportation corridor as well.

But it also opened a revolving door for invasive species that today threaten the economies and ecologies of dozens of states at both ends of the waterway.

Among the harmful exotics are the zebra mussel, which by one estimate costs the Great Lakes region $1 billion a year in damage and control costs. It already has made its way downstream to the Mississippi. Moving upstream, meanwhile, the Asian carp jeopardizes the $4.5 billion annual Great Lakes commercial and sports fishery.

Not a new idea

The idea of disconnecting the basins has been gathering steam since the 2003 Aquatic Invasive Species Summit, convened by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "Hydrologic separation" was the No. 1 recommendation of the nearly 70 scientists, engineers and invasive species experts who attended from around the world.

Other suggestions included an electric barrier, and one is being built at a cost of $9 million to begin operating in the ship canal next spring. But its effectiveness has been questioned: Will carp circumvent the barrier if the nearby Des Plaines River floods? Will carp eggs ride to Lake Michigan in barges' ballast water?

And even if the barrier halts the migration up or down the waterway of carp, round gobies and other destructive fish, its electric field won't stop mussels, spiny water fleas and other aquatic invaders that aren't fish.

Basin separation is a more permanent way to shut the door, but would be "an enormous undertaking," said Dan Injerd, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' top Lake Michigan expert. "The hydrology of the region has been developed on having wastewater and stormwater going down the waterway."

"No one has pointed their finger at a map and said, 'The (point of separation) goes here,'" said Dick Lanyon of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

Separation would cost "in the tens of billions," he said. The district sends 1.5 billion gallons of treated wastewater downstream every day.

In addition to that water, the project would have to accommodate stormwater to prevent flooding. And besides barge traffic, there are pleasure craft — sailboats and power boats — to think about.

"We might have to develop a new lock system, or we may have to do something as drastic as move (barge) cargoes overland," Brammeier said. "We're not at the point where the questions have been asked of all those people who need to hear them."

Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance, said in an understatement, "It's going to take some imagination and creativity."

Seeking federal help

Gov. Rod Blagojevich last month asked the state's congressional delegation to find $750,000 for a "preliminary feasibility study" of unlinking the basins, but there's no telling when or whether they will.

So with funding from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission, the Alliance will spend the next year and $125,000 to explore the basics of basin separation.

It's hoped the study will identify possible solutions and pave the way for further — and hugely more expensive — research. Chuck Shea, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said, "Large-scale feasibility studies for major regional projects could take $20 million to $30 million dollars."

Something less radical than a full disconnection may suffice, according to Suzanne Malec, deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Environment.

"We're not saying hydrologic separation is going to occur," she said. "But it's that extreme a situation that we need to consider everything up to and including that."

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