A $4.25 billion plan to protect the Great Lakes from an Asian carp invasion has grown to a 10,000-page study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, more than tripling the cost.
Asian carp, a predatory fish, is the most recent exotic species threatening the Great Lakes.
The Corps estimates its plan at $15 billion to $18 billion – including the $4.25 billion. A bigger issue is the time line that grows from less than a decade to more than 25 years.
This is a case study on impeding progress and solving problems. It is the red tape in getting things done. It is politics, bureaucracy, rules, time lines and increased costs.
A barrier to separate Great Lakes and Mississippi basins is needed because there are exotic species in each – posing ecological and economic threats to the opposite waters.
A natural separation was destroyed over a century ago when Chicago linked the two with construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. While other topography poses a threat to allow the species to spread, the biggest threat is the 100-foot wide, 30-foot deep canal.
Chicago dug the canal to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and all the sewage discharged into it, so it flowed away from Lake Michigan into the Mississippi basin that sprawls across 40 percent of the nation, from Montana to New York to Texas.
The river acts as a shipping canal and is a valuable transportation route for Illinois commerce.
The Corps plan supports Chicago’s case in its dispute with the Great Lakes Commission (GLC), appointed by regional governors and legislatures and Canada, to protect the lakes.
A GLC plan – initiated in 2012 – to seal off the canal would cost $4.5 billion.
Earlier, Chicago interests objected to sealing the canal, despite support of senators from eight states and Canada, bordering the lakes.
Seventeen attorney generals demanded, in 2011, and all 16 U.S. Senators, from eight Great Lakes states, wrote the Corps to expedite its study. The study, released in December 2013, was scheduled to be completed in 2015.
States implored the Corps to change the focus from “reduce the risk” to “will prevent” the spread from the Mississippi basin to Great Lakes.
The Corps plan adds billions of dollars in water quality measures that critics say are not directly related to stopping Asian carp invasion of Lake Michigan.
The plan includes: $3 billion, for sewer and storm water overflow reservoirs; $5 billion, for 38 miles of tunnels to carry overflows and treated sewage to the Mississippi River and $2 billion, removal of contaminated river sediments.
Damage may have already been done to the Great Lakes.
The Corps installed an electric barrier to prevent fish from swimming upstream into Lake Michigan.
The efficiency is challenged by visual evidence the barrier is flawed. Federal biologists’ underwater sonar displayed dozens of little fish swimming upstream through the electric field.
The public learned of the alleged breach five months after the discovery was reported to federal officials.
Army Corps officers, involved in the study, deny that its electric barrier is leaky, allowing small fish to breach it. The Corps says it buys time to devise a long term fix.
What about Great Lakes exotic species floating downstream and invading the Mississippi Basin?
Restoring the natural divide between two watersheds is the most effective way to halt the transfer of undesirable species because of the cost and time.
Two species of Asian carp, imported in 1970s to clean sewage lagoons and catfish ponds, escaped into the Mississippi basin. Bighead, 100 pounds, consume 20 percent of weight in plankton per day; while silver, slightly smaller, create havoc leaping out of water when agitated.
The eight great lakes are home to some four million recreational boats, about one third of the US total, and a multibillion dollar fishing industry.
Dave Wethington, Army Corps study leader, gave a less-than-inspiring response to reporters Jan. 6, about separating the watersheds in time to prevent an invasion: “Your guess is probably as good as anyone else’s.”