Earlier this spring the Obama administration ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to speed up a five-year study of options to block invasive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes.
Many biologists say the best solution would be complete separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River watershed.
But basin separation comes with its own multi-billion dollar price tag, and would require re-plumbing the entire City of Chicago.
By most accounts, this story began in 1900, the year the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was complete.
Back then, the canal’s opening was touted as one of the biggest civil engineering feats of the industrial age—significant, for completely reversing the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan and taking all the sewage from the city of Chicago with it. Over 100 years later that canal is still doing the same job.
“On any given day depending on the time of year, approximately 60-80 percent of the volume of the Chicago River is treated municipal wastewater,” says Dave WEthingnton.
Wethington is a Project Manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He’s charged with completing the Corps recommendations to Congress for keeping Asian carp out of the lakes now, and in the future.
“The Corps believes we have the issue of Asian carp dealt with appropriately at this point in time. It’s a very complex challenge that we’re looking at because of the multiple uses of that system.”
In addition to storm and wastewater Wethington notes the canals are also important shipping routes moving freight in and out of Chicago and the Great Lakes.
He says an electric barrier located 30 miles downstream is keeping the carp out of the Chicago canals, and breading populations haven’t been detected within 100 miles.
Still, samples taken this summer on Lake Calumet, a mere 6 miles from Lake Michigan, did test positive for Asian carp DNA.
“It’s a warning sign that Asian carp are present in the system,” says Tim Eder, Director of the Great Lakes Commission, based in Ann Arbor, MI. He says the tests are proof the electric barrier isn’t working.
“Whether they’re a live fish present on the wrong side of the barrier now, or whether they will be at some point in the future,” remarks Eder. “I think it’s a warning sign that we’ve got to take this very seriously and move with the utmost haste.”
Eder says best solution for keeping carp out of the lakes is complete hydrologic separation of the Mississippi and Great Lakes basins.
But doing that won’t’ come cheap, with some estimates running as high as $4 billion. John Goss is the so-called “Asian Carp Czar” appointed by the White House to coordinate the federal response to the carp threat.
“In the current budget situation, with the federal government, the State of Illinois and the other states don’t have a lot of funding to contribute,” says Goss. “So certainly, if hydrologic separation is the only solution, then that requires finding the funding.”
Joel Brammeier is the President of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. He says protecting the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes fishing and tourism industry is too important risk on half measures, which themselves cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
“Talking in billions for major infrastructure projects that impact the lives of tens of millions of people is not out of the ordinary," says Brammeier.
“Whether the carp are 100, 50, 20 miles from Lake Michigan, the right solution is the same, and that’s separating these two systems. So we don’t have to worry about this anymore and so we don’t have to keep dumping millions of dollars into temporary fixes that aren’t going to solve the problem.”
The Army Corps is not set to deliver its list of options to Congress until the end of next year.
Yet to be determined is how a permanent barrier would impact shipping and water treatment, and who would pay for it.
Follow Adam Allington on Twitter: @aallington