Studying Separation: New analysis points to need for barrier to block Asian carp in the Chicago River

Image removed.

No big decision is made overnight.  And many of the biggest take years to come together…  before finally, at a critical moment, all of the necessary pieces fall into place.

That is what is happening in the discussion around Asian carp and other invasive species that use the Chicago waterway system as a highway to move between this continent's two greatest fresh water systems:  the Great Lakes and the vast inland network of the Mississippi River.  We have known for over a decade that silver and bighead carp are on a warpath toward our Lake Michigan fisheries, and while I have previously called the response to date a “slow-motion tragedy,” we still have a unique opportunity to do something about this biological invasion before it happens.

And rarely has a solution so straightforward presented itself:  separate the ecosystems by restoring the natural divide that once maintained their biological integrity.

A decade ago, the City of Chicago looked at the invasive species issue and suggested that course of action. Our colleagues at the Alliance for the Great Lakes and Great Lakes Fishery Commission followed up with a 2008 report that recommended that work move forward.  And two years ago, in response to some truly crazy rhetoric, NRDC released a high-profile report looking at where barriers could be placed in the Chicago River system to have the least impact on the region’s fading water infrastructure---offering some interesting strategies to revitalize our water infrastructure in the process.  Last year, we built on that further, working with MacArthur genius architect Jeanne Gang on her spectacular book re-imagining the Chicago River, Reverse Effect.

Today is the next chapter in this iterative process. The Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative have released a new, in-depth analysis of the issue. Their $2 million study comes to much the same conclusions as we and other groups have made: separation is not only doable but necessary and can be a vehicle to fixing much of what ails the Chicago River’s sewage, flooding and transportation issues if the proper resources are marshaled.  And I couldn’t help but notice immediately the endorsements of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel at the front of the report, calling it “a critical step forward” that “reflects an emerging vision for Chicago’s waterways, a future that includes cleaner water, less flooding and more efficient transportation.”

According to the Commission and the Cities Initiative – whose membership includes all eight Great Lakes States and dozens of cities along the Great Lakes, including the City of Chicago – the cost of separation could be as low as less than $1 per month, or $11 annually, if spread across the Great Lakes region, while providing billions of dollars of long-term savings from all of the costs of dealing with invasive species that we would avoid. This is an important report that refocuses the laborious anti-Asian carp efforts that have so far been heavy on short-term gimmicks towards a real and long-term solution for the larger invasive species.  Virtual fences and species-specific poisonings simply cannot stop all the plants, tiny animals and tinier viruses that make up the rogue’s gallery of aquatic nuisance species highlighted by the Army Corps of Engineers as dangers for traversing Chicago’s waterways.

And while no big decision is made overnight, there is no reason to dither on the big ones either.

This report continues the drumbeat for decisive action. Unfortunately, while consensus on the need to separate the waterways is growing two issues stand in the way of a timely solution to stop the invasions. First, while any solution must address the issues of the region’s shrinking transportation sector, the focus on preserving the system as it exists today, rather than looking at how it can bring deeper commercial connections is counter-productive.  More damaging is the Army Corps' go-slow approach to studying the problem, which will not offer even a final report until at least 2015 (that is before any of the public input processes can begin---let alone construction!). Most scientists I have spoken with worry that there just isn’t time for that sort of delay.

The GLC has done a great job moving the ball ever further in the battle to protect the Great Lakes. My hope is that this report is the next salvo that pushes our representatives in Washington, DC to move the much ballyhooed "Stop Asian Carp Act," which has been advanced by a who’s who of Great Lakes Senators and Representatives including Senators Durbin of Illinois and Stabenow of Michigan. That bill would force the Corps to move more quickly, but unfortunately, despite broad support in the region, it has been stuck for years in a dysfunctional Congress.

I am cautiously optimistic that this new study by the Great Lakes states and cities will help bring all the pieces together and show that separation not only can be done, but that it must be done if we want to safeguard if the Great Lakes are to be protected.  We need a smart decision here -- and we need it soon -- before it’s too late.


Note: It is worth noting that NRDC was involved in the GLC’s advisory panel for this report along with a wide variety of business interests, NGO and governmental representatives. The panel acted largely as a sounding board for presentations and had no input on the content of today’s report. We saw the report for the first time today, just like everyone else. The full advisory panel is available online.

Asian Carp = Invasive Species image by jmogs via Flickr