Environment
4:07 pm
Mon January 13, 2014

Army Corps: Keeping Great Lakes Free of Asian Carp Could Cost Up to $18 Billion

Asian carp "flying" on the Illinois River overwhelm a boat of onlookers. (Courtesy of University of Wisconsin Sea Grant/Water Resources)
Asian carp "flying" on the Illinois River overwhelm a boat of onlookers. (Courtesy of University of Wisconsin Sea Grant/Water Resources)
Credit Nerissa Michaels, Illinois River Biological Station

Milwaukeeans had their chance to voice opinions  on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report on preventing Asian carp from slipping into the Great Lakes; Thursday the Corps heads to Traverse City.

After years of study, the Corps has offered eight options, rather than endorsing a single plan, to prevent Asian carp's movement from the Mississippi River into the Great Lakes.

The report, released last Monday, has disappointed some hoping for a single recommendation so work can start sooner.

Joel Brammeier, President & CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says those involved are "expectant of action now."

"We're hearing from members of Congress and others in the region that we're not quite sure what to make of this report, but we need to move on to building something, not more studies, and that message came through to the Corps loud and clear," Brammeier says.

Brammeier says the Corps, which has been studying the Asian carp issue since 2009, didn't have the time or money for more specific findings. And the Corps says it wanted to the leave the decision up to federal and local officials.

"We're providing this information to the decision-makers," says Dave Wethington of the Corps' Chicago district office, project manager for the study. "We are standing by to move forward to the next step."

A portion of the Chicago River
A portion of the Chicago River
Credit Lloyd DeGrane

Four of the Corps' proposals call for a physical separation between Chicago's waterways and the Great Lakes. The other suggestions involve different technologies such as locks, sluice gates, physical and electric barriers and water treatment systems. The options would cost between $8-18 billion and would take upwards of 25 years to complete.

But Brammeier's Alliance and others, including two U.S. lawmakers, believe a physical separation is the right course of action, despite the report's hedging.

"[Separation is] not in question; it's been confirmed by the Corps' other studies," Brammeier says. "How can we do this cheaper and how we can do this faster? Because $18 billion and 25 years is not going to work for the Great Lakes or for that matter for the Mississippi River."

Such an option would sever the more-than-century-old, manmade connection between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. Brammeier adds that another Corps study shows electrical barriers currently in place against the carp aren't working.

Brammeier says it's vital to start a prevention project now, rather than spending time conducting more studies. Scientists say Asian carp are voracious eaters, taking over food supplies and crowding out other species. The carp are also known to jump out of the water, a disturbing and even dangerous threat to aquatic recreation.

"Once you see what the carp can do to a river, it's terrifying to think about that going into our Great Lakes cities," he says.

Two coal-burning plants, including the Stateline Power Plant, have shut down in the Chicago area in the last several years, reducing the amount of coal that must be hauled across waterways.
Two coal-burning plants, including the Stateline Power Plant, have shut down in the Chicago area in the last several years, reducing the amount of coal that must be hauled across waterways.
Credit lloyddegrane.com

Brammeier says the challenge now is to build consensus around Asian carp prevention, rather than trying to address all of the Chicago waterways' problems, like pollution and flooding. For example, some in the freight industry are against possibly separating waterways, which would restrict their access to haul cargo.

But Brammeier says commerce is changing, and cargo is declining. The primary cargo barges carried in the waterways used to be coal; in the last several years, two coal-burning power plants shut down in Chicago.

"The uses that used to be there are starting to go away and the reality is 20 years from now, waterborne commerce on the Chicago River is going to look a whole lot different than it does today whether or not separation happens," he says.

There will be a public meeting this afternoon in Milwaukee at MATC starting at 4 PM. The Corps likely won't change its report or recommendations based on public comment, but Brammeier isn't discouraged.

"Whether the Corps has recommended an option doesn't determine whether or not the Great Lakes will cry out to get the protection they need and the protection they deserve," he says.

Eventually the Corps' report will land in the hands of Congress, which then must make the multi-billion dollar decision of which strategy to employ.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.