Carp Crisis

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My fellow Chicagoan Rahm Emmanuel is famously noted as saying, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." This week, those words are especially pertinent as State and Federal agencies have begun poisoning a nearly 6-mile stretch of the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal to kill off invasive Asian carp while maintenance is performed on an electrical barrier intended to keep the fish out of Lake Michigan. The operation stands as the largest rotenone poisoning effort ever undertaken. If the poisoning sounds like an intense response, it is---but that is how dire a threat that these fish pose. Bighead and silver carp can grow to 100 pounds and out-compete native species in an ecosystem due to their prolific breeding and ability to filter feed 40% of their body weight on a daily basis. They literally out breed and out eat everything else in the ecosystem. Need proof? Look at the Illinois River where the invaders comprise more than 90% of the biomass on some stretches; meaning that they represent 9 out of 10 pounds of all living material, plant or animal, in those areas. Transplant them to Lake Michigan, an ecosystem already irreparably damaged by invasive species, and you have the recipe for a disaster that threatens $7 billion in fishing industry and the drinking water of more than 40 million.

This is indeed a crisis... And for a solution, it is clear that we need to look very carefully at Chicagoland's plumbing. No, not toilets and pipes. But how we deal with sewage and drinking water; and how Chicago's century-old arrangement affects the entire Great Lakes basin.

You see, in the late 1800's Chicagoans dealt with their own crisis: the pressing emergency of raw sewage mucking up Lake Michigan and their drinking water. Their solution was a very big, out of the box idea. The Chicago Diversion was a series of canals that reversed the flow of the Chicago River to move waste down to the Mississippi. Not only did this protect health in the region, but it also opened up new route for goods, allowing them to move from the East Coast to the Mississippi River in uninterrupted fashion for the first time. That is why the waterway being poisoned this week is called the "Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal."  Pretty clever, eh?

I find it ironic that today, the Lake is once again being destroyed by pollution---in the form of living invasive creatures---and that same spirit of innovation is necessary to fix the problem. The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal's connection to the Mississippi River basin makes the canal, and the rest of the Chicago Diversion, a conduit of that living pollution. Sadly, the response to the Asian carp's slow assault on the Great Lakes through the canal has not provoked the same big thinking of a century ago---just ad hoc fixes that are not long-term solutions.

The real solution to this problem is to dump the virtual fish fence in favor of a return to a permanent and durable separation between these ecosystems. As I've said before, its time to close the Chicago Diversion.

Underscoring the Asian carp threat, Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan called for her state's Attorney General to use all legal tools at his disposal this week. This could include the re-opening of a nearly century-old case sitting before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the Chicago Diversion to force immediate action around the carp issue. You see, even 100 years ago, the other Great Lakes states saw trouble in the Chicago Diversion. They weren't concerned about giant, hungry fish. They were concerned about a giant, thirsty city drinking more than their fair share. And downriver states were concerned about a giant, dirty city flushing its waste into their drinking water. And so they sued to stop the Chicago Diversion. By the time the Supreme Court was ready to weigh in, it was too late. The canals were dug and river reversed. All the Supreme Court was willing to do at that point was set limits on the amount of water that could be withdrawn from Lake Michigan.

Still, that open case - or some other legal action - might be used to close the canals to rebuff the fish. In the short-term, that's great. It's a real, physical barrier that can help keep the Asian carp out of Lake Michigan.

But the canals can stay closed for only so long. By Spring the shippers will be screaming and sewage will back up.

And that's why this is a crisis. Whether they haul a million dead carp out of the canal, or just one, it doesn't matter---the looming threat is unmistakable. Clear, resolute, and decisive action is necessary in the short-term to stop the fishes' advance. But emergency poisonings and closure of the waterway will not fix the underlying problem---it will just temporarily provide breathing space while real, scientifically sound, legally binding solutions are installed and public processes are engaged to once again close the door on the invasive species' advance up the Illinois River.

And if that doesn't happen, we've wasted a serious crisis.


Shedd Aquarium image by Kate.Gardiner via Flickr