In January, the Army Corps of Engineers released their long-awaited, Congressionally-mandated study outlining scenarios to rebuff the most infamous invasive species Chicago has ever seen. The Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study outlines a series of scenarios for keeping the Asian carp out of Chicago's waterways to protect the Great Lakes from the havoc the fish have wreaked on many of America's inland waterways.
The report unequivocally supports something the environmental community has been saying for years; if you are serious about stopping the movement of invasive species between North America's greatest freshwater systems via our town's rivers and canals; you have to build a physical barrier (something reinforced in a new peer-reviewed study last week).
Unfortunately, that message has been overshadowed by the significantly overblown price tags and timelines the Corps' has attached to the potential projects. In Chicago, there are concerns that the project is an economic and legal threat (no doubt in part because a fish fix has been part of heavy-handed efforts from neighboring states previously).
And that is too bad. This is actually an unprecedented opportunity for Chicago. While we think the Army Corps' estimated timing and price tag are indeed overblown, a project to separate and improve the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems would clearly be a multibillion dollar investment bringing lots of jobs, sustained economic activity and potential improvement to aging, failed infrastructure in this city that is harming the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River... And it has the added advantage of holding off the plague of Asian carp that would ravage Lake Michigan.
So, it won't be cheap. But what will be the impact of tourists being hit by flying 60 pound fish on North Avenue beach to Chicago’s economy? What about the destructive impact of Asian Carp on the $7 billion per year fishing industry in the Lakes? The price of doing nothing is much, much higher than fixing the problem.
The price-related pushback ignores that the Chicago River is broken--for water management, goods movement and dangerous pollution that violates the Clean Water Act and puts people and property in harm’s way. We are already going to be on the hook for an array of public works projects in Chicago to fix the water infrastructure of the river to protect our property, economy, health and safety.
And, the pushback ignores that many parts of the Corps’ report represent projects that are going to have to be undertaken in this region as large public works projects. Those are always expensive investments.
But those investments come with returns, in economic investments, jobs and improved quality of life. The Corps has unfortunately described this project’s cost without identifying or quantifying any of those benefits, including jobs, improved health and safety better connections between the waterways and the rest of our goods transportation system, increased economic activity in parts of the City that don’t see a lot of that right now, and protection of an irreplaceable national asset—the Great Lakes: in and of themselves worth many billions of dollars annually.
So, again: why wouldn't we get together and push for this?
Whatever the answer ends up being, we do owe the Corps thanks. Thanks for reinforcing the lessons shown in previous studies that a separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems is effective and very doable in the Chicago region. And thanks for making it clear that a practical way forward will have to come from decision-makers and stakeholders here in the region. It is time for civic leaders, labor, transportation and infrastructure experts, community groups and other stakeholders to convene and iron out an actionable, realistic separation solution that can protect the Great Lakes, revitalize our waterways and spur a Burnham-esque advance for the region.