Barrier Broken? Asian carp electric barrier loses juice and exposes folly of the faux fence

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I got a call over the weekend looking for my take on news that the electric barrier, billed as a “success” and the best tool to keep the invasive Asian carp away from Lake Michigan, had lost power, leaving the Chicago Waterways unprotected for a short time last week. My immediate reaction was:

"That's the problem with an electric fence; the electricity…[W]e see outages during the violent storms that have become more commonplace in recent years. The Corps needs to get serious about the hard work of figuring out how to install a permanent physical barrier into the system that addresses legitimate commercial concerns while finally stopping the movement of all invasive species between the Mississippi River system and Great Lakes; not just the big, bad Asian carp."

Given more time to reflect on the situation has reinforced my reaction: the status quo does not give us adequate protection.

The episode illustrates the inherent problems with the Army Corps of Engineers’ approach, which is to rely on a flawed and fallible system indefinitely while they take their time contemplating the comparative costs and benefits of multiple approaches that run from doing nothing to inventing new poisons to experimenting with music, sound guns and bubbles underwater.

The power outage underscores the dodgy nature of this virtual fence, exposing its limitations once again. Last year, the Corps had to turn up the electric juice a full 15% after realizing that the previous current was too weak to prevent small Asian carp from swimming through the “fence” and toward the Lake.

And, of course, the problem is not just about Asian Carp, but the broader issue of all the other invasive species that can move between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River system through our local waterways unaffected by electric charges, however strong. The Corps counts a full 49 species that could move through the canals and Chicago River, only some of which are kept at bay by the Corps’ current fish fence. An actual, physical barrier separating the Mississippi River Basin from the Great Lakes would address all of these issues---and as Jeanne Gang showed in her brilliant re-envisioning of the Chicago River, the separation don right could create a spectacular public amenity.

As I noted over the weekend, we are under no illusions that putting a physical barrier in the waterways is an easy task. It requires proper engineering, infrastructure coordination, community engagement and investment. But the electric outage episode this week makes clear that there is no time to mess around. We must get on to the tough work to accommodate both navigation, water management and ecosystem needs. It can be done---but we must get started, on a genuine permanent solution. Otherwise, we are dependent upon unreliable, half measures that compromise on our health, safety and economic future.


Asian Carp, Thankfully Under Glass by jmogs via Flickr