Open locks should lead to open discussion on Asian carp solutions - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Open locks should lead to open discussion on Asian carp solutions

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This morning the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Michigan's request to indefinitely close the two navigation locks that connect Lake Michigan with the Chicago Area Waterway System (CWS), hopefully restoring some calm.  In theory, solutions will now be patiently and prudently worked out through discussion between interested parties, rather than through litigation and reactionary measures.  That's a good thing.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric behind the lawsuit suggested that neither Illinois nor the federal government was seriously working on immediate, lasting solutions.  That's simply not the case.  For about a decade, a combined team of state and federal agencies have been studying the carp's progress, building defensive mechanisms such as the electric barrier in the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, and coordinating with other Great Lakes states and private fishermen on targeted kills.  The most visible of these efforts was the rotenone kill in early December, which was made necessary by a scheduled shut-down of the electric barrier.  Every state and province on the lakes participated, along with several Illinois and federal agencies, and commercial fishermen.  One Asian carp was killed.  State and federal agencies claim this as proof that a decade's worth of work has slowed the carp's progress, and that the electric barrier has worked.  By rejecting Michigan's request (which was backed by four other states and Ontario), the Supreme Court has put the ball back into the hands of these agencies, business groups, and environmental organizations that are working cooperatively on both short-term and long-term solutions.

The same state and federal agencies have also been trying to disseminate information to the public and media—check out—but not everyone has heard the word.  The lawsuit, to its credit, forced a lot of people to start looking at the Asian carp problem, and to see there is more to it than just big, hungry fish.  That's a good thing too.  Until Michigan's filing, the Asian carp seemed to be a point of humor for most, while serious discussions focused on the invasive species aspect of the issue.  Once Michigan petitioned to have the locks closed, however, the carp was forcibly morphed into a freight, waste water, water supply, recreation, and yes, invasive species issue.  It became a question of the Chicago region's economic and environmental future, and of the future of the artificial connection we've built between the lakes and the Mississippi River.  As a region we haven't grappled with those questions enough. 

We can't respond to the Supreme Court's decision with passivity.  So long as there is a threat of interbasin species transfer, there will always be the threat of shutting down the navigation locks near Navy Pier and Lake Calumet in response.  To paraphrase a statement from Cameron Davis, US EPA's Great Lakes czar, the ideal scenario is to let the good things go through the locks (lots of coal, sand, road salt, and building materials are shipped through the CWS, creating lots of jobs and keeping trucks off the road), while preventing the bad things from doing so. 

In my mind, we need to have three distinct discussions on how to do this, and to my knowledge, at present the first two are happening. 

1) Immediate impediments to Asian carp introduction into Lake Michigan: The interagency response team planned to finish the first draft of their action plan last week.  As described at the Shedd Aquarium last week, the plan includes such measures as accelerating the construction of additional electric barriers to create a multi-point defense system, running the existing barrier at full voltages, increased monitoring and targeted kills, and public education.  That action plan should be public soon, and hopefully implementation will begin as soon as possible.  Temporary lock closure may be necessary; the Ill. Chamber of Commerce has said its members would willingly be a part of any temporary shut-down, so long as they are part of planning for that eventuality.  That's the kind of cooperation that we need.

2) Long-term steps to reduce Asian carp populations in Illinois' waterways: Reducing the number of carp in southern Illinois will make defense systems in northeastern Illinois more effective, simply by lessening stress on them.  The Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are considering an array of options, from targeting known spawning grounds for kills to facilitating market-based responses.  I am a fan of the latter being part of the solution, though the more I think about it, the more I think that making fertilizer out of the fish might be better than trying to eat them all.  You could support a market with a few large wholesale buyers (e.g. other state governments, making them part of the solution), without having to conduct a huge marketing campaign.  Either way, here are a few recipes for Asian carp.

That's a good start, but the third issue that needs discussion is critically important, and now it can happen calmly and rationally.

3) Permanent impediments to interbasin species transfer through the CWS: This is the big one. We reversed the Chicago River for the purpose of public health and built canals that ultimately connect Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River in order to get rid of treated effluent.  That had the secondary benefit of enabling freight movement, making Chicago the critical passage point for a lot of goods. Linking the two basins is what makes invasive species movement between the two possible—zebra mussels are still a problem, the Asian carp increasingly so, and who knows what's next? Is there a way to "ecologically separate" the two basins, perhaps using engineering, chemical or biological means within the locks themselves to eradicate anything in the water, while still allowing for freight movement? If not, does the threat of invasive species justify massive investment in intermodal facilities to move freight from barges to rail, allowing for the locks to be shut? Or do we need to re-examine the reversal itself?  Every other place on the Great Lakes withdraws water, uses it, treats it along with stormwater, and puts it all back into the lakes.  The technology to do so safely did not exist when we reversed the river, but definitely does now.  Is that the direction we need to head? 

Unfortunately, we're nowhere near the answers to these questions, so we need to discuss them as a region.  They're immensely important matters of our economic and environmental future, and they shouldn't happen without significant research, public dialogue, and most of all, prudent planning.  These decisions can't be made at tables populated exclusively by even the best-intentioned wildlife experts (let alone by the attorney generals of other states), because these are much larger issues than Asian carp ... and that's pretty big. 

These are exciting times, but no time for rash decisions.  MPC looks forward to being part of, perhaps even helping to facilitate, these discussions on the future of the Chicago Waterway System.  Stay tuned. 


  1. 1. Dan Jackson from on July 21, 2010

    These fish are a nuisance, displacing local game fish and ruining the habitat. Great post on possible solutions. Lets hope those in charge address this issue correctly

  2. 2. cat health on November 22, 2010

    Well written article. I hope that those responsible for that issue will resolve it in time. Thanks for sharing.

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