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Close locks to stop carp

The current response of state and federal agencies to the threat of Asian carp in Lake Michigan is dangerously inadequate, conservation groups say.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes, the National Wildlife Federation, and two Great Lakes groups called on the Army Corps of Engineers to close all Illinois locks and gateways leading to the lake last month, after carp were detected beyond an electric barrier.

Long-term, they say, the electric barriers are insufficient and that hydrologic separation of Lake Michigan and Mississippi River ecosystems – joined by the construction of the I&M Canal in the early 19th century and the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900 – is the only permanent solution.

“Those locks should have been closed down as soon as fish DNA showed up past the barriers,” said Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.  “We need to keep the locks closed until we know that carp are not breaching the barrier.

The groups’ call was seconded by the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “This is an emergency and calls for quick and decisive action,” said Josh Mogerman. “There needs to be a real physical barrier preventing carp from making their way into the lake,” including sand-bag barriers where no locks exist.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel called for closing the locks in an editorial late last month.

“Everything’s under consideration,” said Lynn Whelan of the Army Corps when asked about shutting down the locks.  “There’s nothing that’s off the table.” But “there has been no decision made.”

The Army Corps operates the locks and along with other agencies makes up the Asian Carp Rapid Response Team.

The giant, voracious Asian carp have the potential to completely displace native species and decimate the $7 billion Great Lakes fish industry as well as recreational boating opportunities.

According to Mogerman, Asian carp now constitute 90 percent of the aquatic life found on portions of the Illinois River.

The state is dumping the fish toxin retonene on a six-mile stretch of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal starting today.

The action is being depicted as a response to the discovery in September that Asian carp had breeched the barrier.  In fact, it has long been planned in order to facilitate a temporary shutdown of the electric barrier to conduct maintenance.

In 2003, a scientific panel convened by Mayor Daley called for studying separation of the two water systems.  The Alliance took up the call in 2005 and last year issued a preliminary feasibility study of separation.

Brammeier said the Army Corps has moved too slowly on a study of physical separation that was funded by the Water Redevelopment Act of 2007.  “We have an agency that’s supposed to act, that’s got funds to act, that’s sitting on its hands,” he said.

Whelan said the Corps started preliminary work this summer on the study, which she described as a comprehensive analysis of how to contain aquatic invasive species up to and including physical separation.

One opponent of a temporary closing or a permanent separation would be the shipping industry, which hauls 25 million tons of coal, sand and gravel and iron ore through the Chicago water system every year.  The Alliance’s feasibility study discussed various alternatives available, including intermodal transfers.

“Now is not the time to be deferring to any one stakeholder,” Brammeier said.  “Now is the time to be looking at the big picture.”

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Category: environment, Lake Michigan, water

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