By Monica Davey, The New York Times, December 20, 2011
CHICAGO — The leaders of the Great Lakes states had come to a moment of calm, glassy waters. It was 2008, and after years of negotiation, politicians in the eight states around the lakes had reached agreement on a compact that would protect their (and their Canadian counterparts’) precious fresh water from what they saw as one of the Midwest’s biggest threats: tapping from other, water-hungry regions.
Wildlife officials used nets and other fishing devices to look for Asian carp in the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal last year.
But a different threat soon broke the peace. Tests began indicating that genetic material from Asian carp, a nonnative, voracious fish with the potential to upend the lakes’ ecosystem, had been discovered in the major waterway system leading to Lake Michigan. Last year, fears grew worse: A 19.6-pound bighead carp was captured there not far from the lake — beyond an elaborate electric fence that had been built to prevent just such an outcome.
The states have split. Some, led by water-ringed Michigan, have filed legal actions aimed at ending access from the nearby tributaries of the Mississippi River, where Asian carp already are flourishing, to the Great Lakes. Others, including Illinois, have objected, saying any such closing would interfere with Chicago’s ability to control flooding as well as with the commercial barges that haul sand, coal, cement and salt through the waterway.
In the eyes of some, the fierce debate has shouldered out discussion of other pressing concerns on the Great Lakes: pollution, repair of harbors, restoration of wetlands and even an early test of the compact, expected in the coming months, about whether to divert water to a city not on the lakefront, Waukesha, Wis.
“It’s unquestionable that the Asian carp challenge and issue has probably gobbled up 90 percent of the attention of the Great Lakes challenges, and other matters probably have not gotten as much national attention,” said Pat Quinn, the governor of Illinois and the co-chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, one of many groups representing interests of the lakes. “Locally, in the Great Lakes states, almost any conversation about the Great Lakes begins with the Asian carp, ends with the Asian carp.”
For at least a decade, people in the Midwest have worried about the arrival of Asian carp, which was first imported to the United States in the 1970s to help fish farmers in the South clean up their algae-filled ponds. Two types, the bighead and silver carp, are viewed as such ravenous eaters that many feared they would travel up the Mississippi River and through the waterway system that leads to Lake Michigan, where they could wreak havoc with the lake’s ecosystem and fishing industry, then spread through the other Great Lakes.
The concerns were quieted, at least for a time, by an elaborate multimillion-dollar electric fence system the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which links the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Some officials say the barriers (combined with intensive carp-fishing efforts farther south) have kept the carp from making their way north into the Great Lakes. But others were alarmed by the recent DNA tests of water samples that detected genetic material of Asian carp (results that have themselves been the subject of a debate over their true significance) beyond the barriers.
“This is what boggles the mind here: We can send a man to the moon but we can’t stop a carp from reaching the Great Lakes?” said Bill Schuette, the attorney general of Michigan, which has led a legal and political fight to close locks that allow water to flow between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes and, ultimately, to separate those two water systems entirely.
Historians say early travelers were sometimes able to make their way between the lakes and the river in the wet season, but a canal, built more than 100 years ago, made permanent the link between the two water systems.
A lawsuit filed by Michigan and four other Great Lakes states against the Chicago water authorities and others is making its way through the legal system. And Mr. Schuette has collected signatures from 17 attorneys general, including some from other parts of the country (though not Illinois or Indiana) urging members of Congress to require the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite a study it is conducting of the entire Asian carp issue.
“Their failure and lack of responsibility is the sorriest thing I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Schuette said of the Army Corps, which has said it may need until 2015 to finish its study. “They have failed on the job.”
For its part, the Corps says its study must proceed carefully and thoroughly, looking at whether measures like electric fences and chemicals can successfully hold off invasive species. If authorities were to decide on the far more drastic option — to separate the water basins from each other — that could, by some estimates, take years, cost billions, and require an engineering feat comparable to the one more than a century ago that reversed the flow of the Chicago River.
Some lake advocates and states like Michigan see this as the only eventual option, while some in Chicago, Illinois and Indiana, which depend on the current alignment as a way to manage floodwaters during heavy rains and storms, sound more circumspect.
“This is a humongous decision,” said Dave Wethington, the project manager for the Army Corps in Chicago. “We must remain unbiased. We are the stewards of the tax dollars,” he said, later adding, “Trying to make a decision of this magnitude is one of the best times to have an established process.”
Meanwhile, among the many groups focused on interests of the Great Lakes, some say the Asian carp issue has not caused so much strife between the states as to slow progress on other matters. Talks, they say, have mostly remained civil. “I think that there was a real concern that it might lead to a fundamental breakdown in cooperation, but that hasn’t been the case,” said David Naftzger, the executive director of the Great Lakes governors.
In fact, some here see other opportunities hidden away in the race to solve the Asian carp threat — perhaps a remade, more attractive and cleaner Chicago River; a reinvented route for commercial barge products headed from or to the South; long-needed fixes to the region’s flooding measures.Still, the tensions loom. “We understand these other states, especially Michigan, are in a litigious mood and are involved in filing litigation, but they have to deal with real-life consequences,” Governor Quinn said. “When they say shut down the locks, you could have in the biggest metropolitan area in the entire Great Lakes region massive flooding.”