PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday January 10th, 2014, 5:38pm

Study: Protecting Great Lakes From Asian Carp Could Cost Billions, Take Decades

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday submitted a long-awaited study to Congress detailing ways to prevent Asian carp and other invasive species from taking over the Great Lakes. Some of those efforts could cost billions of dollars and take decades to finish. Now that the study has been released, environmentalists and others are urging decision makers to move forward and take action before it's too late.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday submitted a long-awaited study to Congress detailing ways to prevent Asian carp and other invasive species from taking over the Great Lakes. Some of those efforts could cost billions of dollars and take decades to finish. 

The report, the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS), provides decision makers with various strategies to prevent at least 13 invasive species, including bighead and silver carp, from moving between the basins of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, where Asian carp prominently reside.

It focuses on the Chicago-area waterway system, a 128-mile-long network of waterways in northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana that feeds into Lake Michigan. Five aquatic pathways between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basins exists within the waterway system, which is considered to be the most likely route for Asian carp to get in the Great Lakes. 

The eight strategies outlined in the 232-page report feature a mixture of different controls to limit the movement of the invasive species, such as chemical water treatment, electric barriers, lock systems and physical barriers separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. Hydrologic separation of the two basins would restore the natural divide that once existed between them before the flow of the Chicago River was reversed in the early 1900s.

Construction costs for the projects listed in the study could range from $7.8 billion to $18.4 billion, with several options expected to take up to 25 years to complete. The Corps' study does not rank or recommend what options would be best to prevent the spread of Asian carp and other invasive species, including bloody red shrimp, the tubenose goby and grass kelp.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI, 10), co-chair of the House's Great Lakes Task Force, was at least one elected official thats was upset by the report's failure to call for immediate action.

"The citizens of the Great Lakes states have stood by patiently waiting for the Corps and other bureaucratic entities to conduct study after study on how best to manage Asian carp and other important environmental issues," she said in a statement. "The time has come for those studies to turn into action that will actually solve the problems."

Congress authorized the Corps' study back in 2007 following concerns that Asian carp located in the Mississippi and Illinois rivers could invade Lake Michigan and spread to the other Great Lakes. The non-native fish threaten the health of the Great Lakes' ecosystem as well as the region's $7 billion fishing industry because they devour nutrients that other species depend on for survival and also reproduce quickly. Asian carp have no natural predators.

In 2012, Congress modified the direction of the GLMRIS report to focus on options for the Chicago-area waterway system. That order from Congress came after high levels of Asian carp DNA were detected near Lake Michigan. 

According to the study, hydrological separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins using four barriers at the edge of Lake Michigan would be the most expensive project, at $18 billion, and could take 25 years to complete. Physical separation of Lake Michigan and nearby waterways would mean significant flooding and water quality issues in the Chicago area. As such, several of the report's other strategies require mitigation measures such as new reservoirs, tunnels and water treatment plants.

However, Robert Hirschfeld, a water policy specialist with the Prairie Rivers Network, said "physical separation is the only defensible solution to the epidemic of invasive species." 

“It’s time to get away from Band-Aid approaches and toward a long-term, comprehensive, and permanent solution," he said. "This report can help us do that.”

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has also signaled that he supports physically separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.

“Ultimately, I think we have to separate the basins … I really feel that is the ultimate solution,” he said during a meeting last June of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

Though popular among some elected officials and environmental organizations, the idea of a physical seperation is not favored by many business groups that are worried about the potential impact it could have on shipping and the economy. The report "clearly indicates that physical separation is too expensive, too slow, and too uncertain to be a viable solution to the spread of invasive species," said Mark Biel, chair of the UnLock Our Jobs business coalition and executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) noted in a statement that the estimated time frame and costs associated with complete separation could make the idea a non-starter in Congress, which would have to authorize any approach to addressing the issue.

"I have seen too many of these long-term Corps projects languish for years and fall victim to Congressional inaction," Durbin said. "We can’t gamble with the threat of Asian carp invading the Great Lakes or risk severe flood damage to the Chicago Metropolitan area by pursuing a risky plan at the expense of our current efforts.”

In a letter sent to the Corps on Monday, U.S. Rep. Miller acknowledged that significant investments would be needed for such an effort, but added that "the entire nation must realize the significant negative impact to the entire Great Lakes Basin if we do not find the collective political will to fund complete separation."

Another solution in the Corps' report, pegged at $7.8 billion, includes new construction and involves locks with flushing chambers, engineered channels and electric barriers. The solution calls for just partial physical separation and could take up to10 years to complete.

The least expensive solution, which requires no new construction and would cost about $68 million a year, utilizes netting, herbicides, public education, waterway-use regulations and maintenance of an electrical barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal meant to keep Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan.

Some have questioned the barrier's effectiveness, however, following a report last month from the Corps, which found that fish can actually breach the electric barrier in certain circumstances. Meanwhile, Asian carp DNA has also already been found in some parts of the Lake Michigan side of the barrier.

A coalition of conservation groups, including Environment Illinois, the  Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club of Illinois, among others, said in a statement that the "electric barrier—currently the last line of defense against the movement of Asian carp into the Great Lakes—is highly flawed."

"These studies reveal the inadequacy of the status quo and the need to take prompt action on separation," the coalition added.

Now that the Corps' new report is out, "continued engagement will be an essential next step to try to identify and build consensus toward a collaborative path forward,” said Margaret Burcham, Great Lakes and Ohio River Division commander for the Corps.

The Corps has scheduled a series of public meetings about the report, the first of which was held Thursday in Chicago. The second Illinois meeting is scheduled for January 30 in Alton. Other meetings will take place in Cleveland, Ann Arbor, Traverse City, St. Paul, St. Louis and Milwaukee. The public comment process ends March 3.

There's still a big question mark as to how the costs associated with addressing the issue will be divvied up among the various governmental agenicies and jurisdictions impacted by the invasive species. But now that the study has been released, environmentalists are urging decision makers to act before it's too late. For its part, the Healthy Water Solution coalition plans to "work with local and regional leaders to design separation scenarios that also solve localized problems, such as flooding, deteriorating freight transport and poor water quality."

 Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, stressed that it's time for "Congress and our region to move from study to action on a permanent solution that will protect the environment, jobs and way of life for millions of people."

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