The news was very bad on Friday when state and Federal agencies admitted that tests show invasive Asian carp have evaded an electrical barrier intended to prevent the fish from gaining access to Lake Michigan, and eventually the entire Great Lakes ecosystem. Scientists and government regulators all agree that the fish pose a dire threat to the Lakes because of their size and voracious appetites.
It would be easy to dismiss the problem, until you see these fish. The two invasive species (bighead and silver carp) can grow over four feet long and 100 pounds and quickly take over habitat upon arrival. In the Illinois River, they now make up 90% of the life forms present in some stretches of the river. Check out the first minute of this video and imagine the prospect of these whoppers smashing into swimmers at Chicago's crowded Oak Street Beach, or colliding with water skiers along the shores of Lakes Michigan, or leaping onto boats moving through the Great Lakes...
I think I'd feel better about this situation if there was different leadership charged with finding a solution to the problem, and quick...
Alas, the Asian Carp Rapid Response Group, the folks who are helping to lead the charge on this issue, is populated with an array of agencies and companies who are part of the problem by allowing the situation to grow into an emergency with an amazing lack of urgency in dealing with this problem since it began its slow advance in 1993. You have the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, who dreamt up the virtual fish fence that has allowed the carp to pass. And an interesting pair of serial polluters in the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Cook County (who have spent millions of dollars to fight the effort to get them to stop dumping human waste into the Chicago River) and Midwest Generation LLC (whose entire Illinois coal plant fleet is being challenged by USEPA, Department of Justice, Illinois Attorney General and a consortium of citizen activists for the Company's chronic and dangerous air pollution emissions).
It is time for all the locks to be closed until the Corps can prove that they have appropriately, scientifically and durably dealt with the problem. It is time for physical barriers to be erected on the Calumet River where the fish have been detected and no barrier exists to impede their movement. These are minimum actions to preserve the status quo, so that the environmental and economic damage can be averted while permanent solutions are put in place. Emergency closure of the water way will not fix the problem---it will just temporarily provide breathing space while real, scientifically sound, legally binding solutions are installed and public processes are engaged.
There will be howls over this action.
Shipping interests will raise Cain over the impact this will have on barge traffic. Midwest Gen will complain about the impact of coal deliveries for the filthy Fisk and Crawford Generating Stations. Others may complain about the impact on movement of goods along the Chicago River. But these are short-sighted, self-interested, and myopic positions. Do the costs of temporarily re-routing the flow of goods trump the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes fishery? Do they trump the health of an ecosystem that represents 90% of this nation's fresh surface water and provides drinking water to 40 million Americans and Canadians in the Great Lakes Basin?
More importantly, what are the alternatives? This is where big thinking needs to come fast. So far, we've not heard much from the Rapid Response group. They have said that everything is on the table---but tick tock, the fish are moving and nothing has been done since the fish were detected on the other side of the electric barrier. And let's not forget these guys can swim miles closer to the Lake every day.
To be fair, the Group has made some suggestions in the past... Indeed, Midwest Gen threw out a very convenient solution: their coal plants on the Chicago River dump a lot of thermal pollution into the waterway---meaning that they are so decrepit and inefficient that they cannot deliver all of the energy they create and have to dump the excess heat into the river. With a straight face, they offered up this pollution as the salvation we have all been looking for to keep the carp out of the Chicago River, another channel into Lake Michigan. Thankfully, that suggestion was rejected outright---but really, are these the stakeholders that we should be relying for out of the box solutions to this problem?
The answer is no. The Army Corps should not assume that the Group they have assembled has all the answers. The only way to create a permanent, effective solution to this problem is to fully engage the public, in an open and transparent debate that treats this issue as it really is: an issue that affects all of us.
Fortunately, the legal framework for this public process already exists. It's called the National Environmental Policy Act. When it is followed, it is supposed to require federal agencies like the Army Corps to solicit public input on major decisions before they make them, not after, in order to ensure that all potential alternatives are considered and their consequences are explored. It takes a lot to admit that you don't have all the answers. But with the fish fence having failed and carp bearing down on Lake Michigan, the Army Corps should immediately begin asking the public to help them come up with the best possible permanent solution.
The 19th Century thinking that gave us the Chicago Diversion does not meet our needs today. In fact, it puts us in harm's way by polluting our waters and threatening further, permanent loss of our fresh water seas---the Great Lakes. We can close those waterways to prevent the arrival of more carp and still protect commerce. That's the kind of aggressive action that is needed. Here at NRDC, we are investigating what sorts of legal action we can take to spur the Corps and other responsible parties to get moving in the face of this threat. And I would hope that the state Attorneys General of the Great Lakes states are all looking for similar legal actions to protect their waters. (After all, they are all party to a case that remains before the US Supreme Court related to the operation of the Chicago area water system and its canals---see Wisconsin v. Illinois, 388 US 426 et seq.)
Sadly, the only thing aggressive about the response so far has been the multi-million dollar price tag on the failed virtual fish fence... We can, and should expect more...