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Close locks — create jobs?!?

We’ve been told by politicians, lobbyists, and editorialists that closing the O’Brien and Chicago locks would be devastating to the local economy.   Governor Quinn has said it would be tantamount to “strangling our economy.”

Now a new analysis (from Michigan) argues that closing the locks would lead to an increase in local employment.

The study was submited as part of Michigan’s motion on Thursday asking the Supreme Court to reconsider a preliminary injunction to close locks in order to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan.  The motion is based on the revelation that the Army Corps of Engineers had information that carp DNA had been detected for the first time in Lake Michigan – but didn’t release it until just after the Supreme Court dismissed an earlier motion.

It comes as three Midwest governors plan to meet with federal officials at the White House on Monday, with a congressional hearing on the issue scheduled for Tuesday.

Environment Illinois is calling on Governor Quinn to embrace a temporary closing of the locks and make public contingency plans for action if carp continue to advance. “We need to know that all options are on the table and that science is guiding the decision-making process, funding is available and agencies are being coordinated — and that the shipping industry is not the only voice being heard,” said Max Muller of EI.

The group is part of the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition, which has issued a comprehensive plan for the crisis.

Joel Brammeier of the Great Lakes Alliance applauded the growing attention to the issue, but told the Circle of Blue’s Water News that it’s not yet clear whether “the agencies are willing to go to the mat and make stopping Asian carp priority one in both word and deed.”

Estimates by Illinois and the Army Corps of Engineers of the economic costs of closing the O’Brien and Chicago locks are “seriously exaggerated,” said John C. Taylor, a professor of Wayne State University and director of its supply chain management program.

His study is discussed and linked by Henry Henderson of the National Resources Defense Council on his Huffington Post blog.

A key error is the Army Corps’ assumption that barge cargo would be shifted to truck or rail from its starting point, Taylor writes.  He argues that the cost advantages of barge traffic mean such cargo would still go by water, but would be shifted to other modes of transportation at new transloading terminals that would be needed downstream of closed locks.

While the Army Corps estimates additional costs for the 7 million tons of cargo that pass through the two locks each year at $27 a ton, Taylor pegs it at $10 or less.  That reflects the difference between a 400-mile truck ride from New Orleans and a 7- or 12-mile route from the O’Brien Lock and a nearby customer.

There would be some loss of barge jobs, but in most cases employment would move from areas where navigation is reduced to areas where it continues, he says; overall, he expects additional  transportation and cargo-handling jobs — and a net increase in employment.

Most of the $70 million in increased costs that Taylor projects would go to wages for truck drivers and other new workers, he said.

The assertion in court filings by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the American Waterways Operators that transloading is not feasible “flies in the face” of the realities of the industry, Taylor said.  “Almost everything is transloaded in some manner” – including a large percentage of cargo now carried on barges on Chicago waterways.

The assertion is belied every day by long lines of trucks outside Calumet River terminals, Taylor said.

Whatever the outcome of the Asian carp crisis, the scientific consensus is that it’s time to separate the two great water basins, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River,  joined a hundred years ago by the Chicago Diversion.   Asian carp is not the first invasive species to threaten the two ecosystems and it won’t be the last, and the connection puts both ecosystems at peril.

Forward-looking leadership with the courage to plan responsibly would minimize economic dislocation.  Denial, resistance, and foot-dragging will ultimately make things harder.

The speed of carp

Today the Supreme Court denied Michigan’s request for an emergency injunction to close Illinois locks — on the same day that Asian carp DNA was reported found in Lake Michigan for the first time.  Some people think it’s a pretty serious situation [e.g., see Thom Cmar at NRDC’s Switchboard].

But the Chicago Tribune reports that “Illinois” welcomes the ruling (in fact recreational boaters and fishermen and women in Illinois are generally much less sanguine) – and runs not one but two “relax and enjoy it” stories (see Tex Antoine) about how to cook carp.

The forced humor of the paper’s food blog – “Illinois doesn’t have the best history when it comes to preventing unfortunate things, but we’ve always been pretty good about turning a buck on them” – is particularly tasteless.

Life imitates bad art, however:  the LaSalle News Tribune reports that Illinois politicians are talking with a big Illinois fish processing company that says it could process carp from the Illinois River – if the government can come up with a $100 million subsidy.

Next month the Supreme Court will consider the case on the Chicago Diversion filed by Michigan and backed by Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and New York, not to mention Ontario.  And AP reports that, in response to calls by Michigan officials and others for a White House summit on the crisis, “the Obama administration said it would welcome such a meeting.”

It’s striking the way some people’s response to the issue depends on which side of the state line they’re on – particularly politicians, but also newspapers.  And you have to wonder whether the Obama administration would have opposed the motion if the President and his chief of staff (and everyone else, down to his chef) came from Milwaukee instead of Chicago.

(That could have made a difference today; one legal expert tells the New York Times that the court may have deferred to the administration’s position.)

That parochialism doesn’t apply to environmental groups, based here and elsewhere, which have pushed for an end to the stalling.  They criticized the Obama administration’s position on the Michigan motion, and today they issued a joint statement saying the court’s ruling means U.S. and Illinois officials need to take responsibility.

“State and federal agencies keep saying they understand the problem,” said Jeff Skedling of the Great Lakes Coalition. “Talking about the urgency comes cheap.  We can’t wait another two minutes — let alone another two months — to know how one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water will be protected from these monsters.”

“This is a crisis,” Dr. Marc Gaden of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission told Newstips last week.  “It’s impossible to move fast enough. We don’t have the luxury of time.

“We need to move at the speed of carp, not the speed of government,” said Gaden.

He points out that the electronic barrier that is now failing has been 15 years in the making.  First authorized in 1996, a full-strength barrier was finally installed last year.

He applauds the Army Corps for undertaking a study of possible solutions, including separation of Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River water system.  But the study could take years.

“We’re now in the 21st century,” he said. “It’s not like we need a canal to deal with wastewater – every other city deals with it without a canal – and there are other modes of transportation.  It’s time to make a transition.”  He talks about a “paradigm shift.”

“These are very solvable problems – if we are willing to make the investment in a 21st century transportation system that will accommodate the interests of a variety of stakeholders.”

But “it’s absolutely unthinkable to consider a tradeoff of the integrity of the Great Lakes for the ability of some people to continue doing things in the ways they are used to, when they can certainly be done in a different way.”

The $7 billion Great Lakes fishing industry includes 5 million people who fish, including 70,000 who work in commercial fishing as well as Indian tribes with historic claims.

“Millions of people rely on that resource for food, for income, for recreational value, and for subsistence,” he said.  “There are whole communities built around recreational, commercial and tribal fishing that we have to protect.  There’s a way of life that we have come to respect and revere.  And it’s all in jeopardy.”

O’Brien: Keeping Lake Michigan clean?

“It’s my job to clean up our water and keep pollution out of Lake Michigan,” says MWRD president Terrence O’Brien in the first TV ad of his campaign for County Board president (watch it on youtube).  “It’s time to clean up Cook County.”

In fact, as Newstips reported last April, under O’Brien the MWRD has resisted calls to disinfect wastewater for nearly a decade.  In a letter to the Tribune last February, O’Brien claimed it would cost $2 billion; Newstips reported the US EPA’s estimate that it would cost at most $650 million, and perhaps as little as $250 million, over 20 years.

“Environmental groups believe MWRD is exaggerating the cost of disinfection as part of a strategy of delaying action,” we wrote, citing John Quail of Friends of the Chicago River.

Ann Alexander of the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out that MWRD is spending millions of dollars on lawyers and experts in its effort to prevent the Illinois Pollution Control Board from implementing a recommendation by the Illinois EPA (endorsed by the city) to require MWRD to disinfect.

As far as “keeping pollution out of Lake Michigan,” here’s what we reported in August of 2003:

“During ‘extreme storm events,’ locks are opened and river system water is released into Lake Michigan.  ‘There is undoubtedly bacteria from the waterways system getting into the lake,’ said [Laurel] O’Sullivan [of the Lake Michigan Federation].

“‘The overall quality of the water sent out to the lake would be much higher if they disinfected.'”

UPDATE:  Last year we reported a ruling was expected by the end of the year.  Alexander now says she has no idea when a ruling will occur, noting this “has set the record for the length of a rulemaking proceeding.”

The delay results from MWRD’s effort “to contest the obvious,” she said.

“They’ve presented multiple purported experts before the pollution control board to defend the proposition that pathogens in the water aren’t really bad for you.” That’s forced NRDC to spend time and resources “to prove that in fact they are.”

It’s a remarkable story that to date has gone virtually untold.  Will O’Brien’s candidacy give it any currency?

Carp: Quinn stalls, Michigan sues

Earlier this month we pointed out that, while Governor Quinn claimed Illinois and Michigan officials were “working together” on the Asian carp crisis, there seemed to be a much greater sense of urgency on the other side of the lake.

Now, far from “working together,” Michigan’s attorney general is suing Illinois.  He’s taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for an immediate closure of locks and gateways – and for a permanent severing of the man-made connection between the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.

“The actions of Illinois and federal authorities have not been enough to assure us the Lakes are safe,” Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said, the New York Times reports.

Quinn tells the Tribune that this amounts to “strangling our economy,” referring to “a great many jobs that depend on shipping.”

The Christian Science Monitor has some details, citing the barge industry association’s claim that closing the waterway, even temporarily, will cost 400 jobs.  This may be a problem, but it’s not strangulation.

According to the American Waterways Operators, Chicago canal shipping generates $30 million in annual revenues for the industry.  That compares to the Great Lakes fishery, with an annual economic output estimated at $7 billion.

There’s also the matter of the ecological integrity of the largest body of fresh water in the world.

A study released last year by the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (reported on by Newstips at the beginning of this month) said the watersheds of the Mississippi and the Great Lakes could be permanently separated with minimal impact on the flow of goods and on recreational boaters.

A spokesperson for IDNR told the Detroit Times “there is no schedule or timeline” for a decision on closing the canals.  But the Supreme Court could rule on the motion for a preliminary injunction within a week or two.

UPDATE:  At NRDC’s Switchboard, Thom Cmar adds this:

“Although Chicago still uses its Sanitary and Ship Canal to move both sewage and goods, a permanent disconnection of the canal system from Lake Michigan could actually be good for Chicago if it is turned into an opportunity to make long-needed investments in upgrading this 19th Century infrastructure.

“It is long past time for MWRD to upgrade its sewage treatment and begin disinfecting the human waste that it dumps into the canal system.  And Chicago’s once vaunted transportation system has long needed an overhaul to a more sustainable, modern, and efficient network.”

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.”

Plugging lakes compact leaks

Progress Illinois notes a new effort led by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation to amend the Great Lakes Basin Compact to classify water as a public resource and not a commercial product.  They want to plug a gap in the compact (first reported here in August) that could allow massive withdrawals by water bottlers.

Environmental groups that support the compact say it is strong enough as is.  Amending the compact would be an arduous process, requiring agreement by legislatures of eight states and by the U.S. Congress.

 U.S. Representative Bart Stupak (D-Michigan), who opposed the pack (citing loopholes “anybody could drive a semitruck through”) said he might sponsor a joint resolution expressing congressional intent that Great Lakes water not be commercialized, according to an AP report.

Leaks in Great Lakes Compact?

While Great Lakes advocates are pressing for swift congressional approval of the Great Lakes Compact, groups concerned about water privatization are working to close what they call “loopholes” in the international agreement.

A coalition including Food and Water Watch, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, and the Council of Canadians is concerned that while the compact bans large-scale diversions of Great Lakes water, it provides exceptions for bottled water and for water labelled as “product.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Point Preservation Study Authorized

Congress’ first override of a veto by President Bush also constitutes a major victory for Hyde Parkers fighting city plans for Promontory Point.

The federal Water Resources Development Act enacted Thursday over Bush’s veto includes authorization of funding for a third-party review of plans to renovate the limestone revetment at the Point, the lakefront park running from 53rd to 57th Streets.

Authorization is the legislative precondition for appropriation, said Don Lamb of the Commmunity Task Force for Promontory Point, who said he expects the funds to be appropriated next year.

The planning review will be conducted by Horace Foxall, a preservation expert for the Seattle District of the Army Corps of Engineers, and must meet federal preservation standards.

One item of interest will be the shoaling of sand that is actually creating a small beachhead on the north side of the Point, where the city had claimed extensive erosion, Lamb said.

Since 2001 the Task Force has fought plans by the city and Chicago Park District to replace the limestone revetment with a concrete structure. The group raised funds to conduct engineering and architectural studies which identified inaccuracies in the engineering work done to support the city’s plan and argued for the viability of a preservation approach.

After Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. backed the Task Force’s position, the city proposed a adding limestone steps to the proposed concrete revetment. But after Sen. Barack Obama was elected in 2006, the two legislators sponsored negotiations which led to agreement on the proposal for a third-party independent review “to assess the current state of the revetment…and independently provide alternatives for the historic preservation of Promontory Point.”

Since the park district had earlier requested and been granted a determination that the Point was eligible for federal landmark status, any repair work has to be consistent with the U.S. Interior Department’s standards for preservation, Lamb said. The plans by the city and park district “were completely inconsistent with those standards,” he said.

“This is a milestone in a long process,” Lamb said, saluting the staffs of Jackson and Obama for their “sustained commitment to bringing about a solution that the community wants and that’s consistent with preservation.”

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