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Asian carp DNA hits take a leap

DNA evidence of Asian carp beyond the electrical barrier designed to keep them out of Lake Michigan “appears to have grown ten-fold over the last year,” reports Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

One day of sampling this spring yield positive results in 15 percent of samples taken, compared to postive results in 1.5 percent of samples taken last year.  Most of the positive hits were in Lake Calumet.

The Army Corps of Engineers argues that the DNA material could be transported by a variety of means, but scientists say the overall pattern of positive results over three years “is powerful evidence that at least some live fish are swimming above the barrier,” Egan reports.

Meanwhile the Corps is undertaking a five-year study evaluating a wide range of options – “from doing nothing to inventing new poisons to experimenting with music, sound guns, and bubbles underwater,” according to Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Corps also identified scores of invasive species that could infest the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River system via the Chicago waterway system, including nearly 50 that are impervious to the electical barrier.

Authorized in 2007 and funded in 2009, the study wasn’t started until November 2010.  The Corps recently said its release, expected in 2015, could be delayed further.

Senators Richard Durbin and Debbie Stabenow have introduced legislation mandating that the Corps complete its work within 18 months, but it hasn’t moved in Congress.

Noting that the electric barrier is also susceptible to power outages, Henderson writes, “The Corps needs to get serious about the hard work of figuring out how to install a permanent physical barrier into the system that addresses legitimate commercial concerns while finally stopping the movement of all invasive species between the Mississippi River system and Great Lakes, not just the big bad Asian carp.”

Coal ash in Lake Michigan, and more

The Sierra Club reports that toxic coal ash is being dumped into Lake Michigan after a retaining bluff collapsed at a power plant in Wisconsin.  Coal ash contains a variety of toxic substances, depending on the type of coal used, including arsenic, lead, mercury, dioxins, carcinogens and mutagens.  The U.S. Senate is considering a bill passed by the House to block the EPA from cracking down on coal ash in the water supply.

Peoples World profiles Jane Edburg, lead organizer at the South Halsted Unemployed Action Center.  Not previously an activist, Edburg became involved when she lost her shipping clerk position with a Chicago photo lab manufacturer after 32 years with the company – and after losing her unemployment benefits after 99 weeks, while sending out hundreds of resumes and job applications.

The center helps unemployed workers apply for jobs and benefits – and pushes elected officials for action on the jobs crisis.

Wal-Mart marches on in Chicago, but the company’s critics remain, reports Kari Lydersen at Working In These Times.  They say that despite recent p.r. victories, the corporation’s latest move dropping health coverage for part-time workers and increasing premiums shows that Wal-Mart is still “a cut-throat company” that drives down the standard of living.

Finally, a downstate blog posts the Notice of Eviction that Occupy Springfield served on lobbyists in the state capitol.  Great photos, too.

Army Corps waffles on Asian carp

At a hearing tomorrow on an Army Corps study of ways to block invasive species, environmentalist will call for stepped-up action – and oppose Corps plans to scale back the study’s goals.

Authorized in 2007 and funded last year, a plan for the $25-million study to prevent invasive species like Asian carp from migrating between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River was finally announced by the Corps in November.

But Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that the Corps has pulled back from language in the Congressional authorization – to “prevent the spread” of invasive species – and now says it will look at measures to “prevent or reduce the risk” of invasion.

“This ‘reduce risk’ language — which the Army Corps seems to have pulled out of thin air — potentially opens the door to the Army Corps studying all sorts of half-measures that won’t actually prevent the spread of invasive species,” Thom Cmar of the Natural Resources Defense Council told Egan.

While the primary focus of the study will be on Chicago-area waterways – where eDNA tests have found signs of carp beyond electronic barriers since last year – it will look at the entire Great Lakes region.  NRDC and the Alliance of the Great Lakes will press for an early focus on the Chicago system; the entire study is now expected to take five years, a deadline that’s been pushed back several times.

The Chicago Tribune downplayed Asian carp fears in a Sunday editorial but may have missed the big picture, says Josh Mogerman of NRDC.  The editorial cited a federal judge’s ruling denying a motion by Great Lake states for an injunction shutting down Chicago area locks, saying the judge found “the dreaded Asian carp aren’t an imminent threat.”

In fact, as Cmar points out in a post on the ruling at NRDC’s Switchboard, the judge found the states had failed to prove an imminent threat based on the presence of a breeding population in Lake Michigan.

That’s the legal standard, but the policy and planning standard needs to be tougher, Mogerman said.  “We may not be able to prove that an invasion is taking place until it’s too late,” he said. What we do know is that the existing emergency system is leaking.

With a five-year study and several additional years to implement a plan, “we’re talking about a decade out,” Mogergman said.  “That’s not responsibly addressing the threat.”

While the Corps waffles, the consensus on the need for ecological separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems is increasingly solid.  Illinois Senator Dick Durbin joined Debbie Stabanow of Michigan to sponsor a bill mandating an expedited study focused on separation last year. (The Senate hasn’t voted on the measure.)

Even Mayor Daley has backed the idea of separation – though he may be wrong that it won’t require the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to disinfect its wastewater (a requirement which the City of Chicago has endorsed, by the way).

The Army Corps hearing takes place from noon to 7 p.m. tomorrow (Wednesday, December 15) at the Gleacher Center, 450 N. Cityfront Plaza.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes has a recap of the past year here; Egan’s series on the issue is here.

Carp keep coming

Environmental groups are saying the new discovery of a breeding population in the Wabash River near Fort Wayne – downstream of a floodplain that separates the Wabash from the Maumee River and Lake Erie – “signals the immediate need for effective leadership on a crisis that has moved well beyond the control of the federal agencies tasked with handling it.”

The news came not from any of those agencies but in an aside in a press release from Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Henry Henderson of NRDC points out at Huffington Post.

News of the discovery of a breeding population in an offshoot of the Mississippi River within hailing distance of the Great Lakes come one week after an Asian carp was caught in Lake Calumet, beyond electrical barriers that were supposed to prevent a carp invasion.

Environmentalists said the discovery adds urgency to the call by Senator Richard Durbin for a “carp czar” to coordinate the response to the threat.

“We now see direct threats to two of the Great Lakes,” said Henderson. “We cannot afford foot-dragging and confusion about the problem or the solutions. It is time for focused, determined action, which requires direct and firm engagement from the White House.”

The environmental groups expressed a growing frustration with the federal response, saying it has “fallen far short of expectations” and involved “numerous costly missteps.”

These include delay by the Army Corps in starting a study of ecological separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River water basins.  Congress authorized the study in 2007, but the Corps has yet to even release an initial study plan, and 2012 date for completing a study of the Chicago waterway system has been pushed back a year, according to a letter from the groups to President Obama released last week.

New legislation from Durbin and Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan would mandate an Army Corps study focused on ecological separation to be completed within 18 months.

Praise, scorn for carp agencies

An editorial in Friday’s Sun Times praises the “wise approach” of authorities responding to the capture of an Asian carp in Lake Calumet last week.

At the Detroit Free Press, meanwhile, outdoor writer Eric Sharp suggests the carp crisis shows government protection of the environment to be “hopelessly slow and often massively incompetent.”

And at NRDC’s Switchboard, Thom Cmar slams “the mismanagement of this situation” as “scandalous.”

What’s going on?   Read the rest of this entry »

No carp found; Durbin, Burris back separation study

Last week’s fish poisoning located no Asian carp in the Calumet River – “good news for Illinois business leaders and politicians who have been highly critical of a push by Great Lakes regional politicians to close two navigation locks to block the advance of Asian carp into Lake Michigan,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports (via Progress Illinois).

The results didn’t surprise wildlife scientists – who warn that they don’t prove the absence of carp.

A small number of Asian carp could be very hard to locate, US Geological Survey expert Duane Chapman has said.  “It’s typical for a species to putter along at a barely noticeable level for several generations,” he told the Grand Rapids News in January.  They may not be noticeable until they are a well-established population, he said.

In addition, the DNA traces which the fish kill focused on are at least a month old, Thom Cmar pointed out at NRDC’s Switchboard.  “Just because there were Asian carp there a month ago does not mean they sat still and did nothing in the meantime.”

As the scientists who pioneered the DNA testing told the Chicago Reader in March, alternative hypotheses to account for the traces – involving birds or wastewater carrying carp DNA – don’t explain the pattern of the evidence, especially the repeated findings of DNA traces at the same locations.

“These results are not chance events, and the distribution is consistent with the movement of fish,” said Lindsay Chadderton.  “For example, the number of positive samples decreases as we get closer to the barrier.  That’s consistent with an upstream invasion.”

What NRDC’s Henry Henderson calls “the ‘show me a fish’ crowd” is trying to deny that the threat of an Asian carp invasion is serious – and sidestepping the larger question, the ongoing threat to the integrity of the Great Lakes from invasive species caused by Lake Michigan’s artificial linkage with the Mississippi River.

Henderson fears that netting and poisoning operations which aim at producing “physical evidence” to confirm “indications” from DNA (as a federal official told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) are sucking up resources that should go to a long-term solution.

“The Asian Carp Control Strategy framework is overwhelmingly tipped towards short-term tactics, with only $1 million of their stated $78.5 million budget devoted to the study that is intended to determine the permanent solution,” Henderson pointed out.

“In 2007 Congress authorized the corps to look at ways to stop the spread of invasive species between the two waters,” according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “The corps’ study, however, focuses on a variety of approaches to controlling invasive species—none of which is 100 percent effective—and does not look at the only permanent solution to the problem: building a physical barrier between the two waters.”

So it’s significant that U.S. Senators from the Great Lakes, reaching across the divide that’s separated Illinois from neighboring states, issued a letter yesterday urging Congress to direct the U.S. Army Corps to study how to build a permanent barrier between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

Signing were Schumer and Gillibrand of New York, Specter and Casey of Pennsylvania, Voinovich  and Brown of Ohio, Levin and Stabenow of Michigan, Kohl of Wisconsin, Klobucher and Franken of Minnesota – and Durbin and Burris of Illinois.

The senators joined the Great Lakes Commission (chaired by Governor Quinn), which in February called on Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “to embrace a clear goal of ecological separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds as the key, permanent strategy in the war against Asian carp and their threatened invasion of the Great Lakes.”

Conservation groups praised the senators.  “We applaud Senator Durbin for his leadership in seeking a long-term  solution to the threat posed by Asian carp, and other invasive species, to Lake Michigan and our Illinois River system,” said Jack Darin of the Sierra Club in a release from the Great Lakes Coalition.

“For right now, we have little choice but to try to find and kill Asian carp,” Darin said, “but the study [the senators] are calling for gives us hope for a permanent fix that won’t require repeated poisonings of the Chicago River system.”

Asian carp: poison isn’t enough

Local conservation groups are praising efforts to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan by state and federal agencies, as they begin four days of dumping fish poison in the Cal Sag Harbor today.

A statement by six groups characterizes the fish kill as unfortunate but necessary — but calls for “planning for management of the Asian carp threat by other means.”

The emergency effort to stop the carp is a setback for recent gains in repairing long-term damage to the ecosystems of the Chicago waterway system, including the repopulation of rivers and canals by native fish, said Glynnic Collins of the Prairie Rivers Network.

Conservation groups believe the only permanent solution is to restore the ecological separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River water basins that was breached by the “Chicago diversion” over a hundred years ago.

It’s not just about carp, said Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council; ‘the Chicago waterway system is a highway for invasive species moving in both directions,” most of which can’t be stopped by nets or electric fences.

“It’s time to get focused on moving the Great Lakes and Mississippi River out of harm’s way permanently before carp and dozens of other invaders wreak havoc in those massive freshwater ecosystems,” said Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Also signing on the statement were Environment Illinois, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club.

At NRDC’s Switchboard, Thom Cmar has a somewhat more critical view – of the failure of government agencies to do a thorough search for Asian carp in the previous fish kill (last December in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal); and of the danger of those agencies bowing to pressure from local interests, which are promoting doubt about the science that warns of the carp’s progress toward Lake Michigan.

“We cannot allow this continuing food fight over how many Asian carp are present, and where, to distract from the need for a permanent, long-term solution,” Cmar writes.  “The Asian carp are really just the ‘poster child’ for a much larger, long-term problem: infrastructure” which leaves us open to the ecological and economic harm of a host of invasive species.

The cost of carp

The Illinois Chamber of Commerce projects a $4.7 billion cost to the state’s economy over the next twenty years if locks between Lake Michigan and the Chicago waterway system are closed to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

But Thom Cmar at NRDC’s Switchboard points out that no one is actually proposing that.   What’s needed, he argues, is not a simple closing of locks, but a well-planned permanent solution including hydrological separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River ecological systems, through construction of barriers that prevent transfer of water – but also new infrastructure that’s badly needed to address a range of looming water management and transportation challenges.

As Cmar suggests, the choice is between a kind of willful, blind resistance and responsible, comprehensive planning – and the latter is more likely to minimize economic pain in the long run.

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