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Carp Crisis

Henry Henderson

Posted December 3, 2009

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Asian carp at Shedd Aquarium

My fellow Chicagoan Rahm Emmanuel is famously noted as saying, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." This week, those words are especially pertinent as State and Federal agencies have begun poisoning a nearly 6-mile stretch of the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal to kill off invasive Asian carp while maintenance is performed on an electrical barrier intended to keep the fish out of Lake Michigan. The operation stands as the largest rotenone poisoning effort ever undertaken. If the poisoning sounds like an intense response, it is---but that is how dire a threat that these fish pose. Bighead and silver carp can grow to 100 pounds and out-compete native species in an ecosystem due to their prolific breeding and ability to filter feed 40% of their body weight on a daily basis. They literally out breed and out eat everything else in the ecosystem. Need proof? Look at the Illinois River where the invaders comprise more than 90% of the biomass on some stretches; meaning that they represent 9 out of 10 pounds of all living material, plant or animal, in those areas. Transplant them to Lake Michigan, an ecosystem already irreparably damaged by invasive species, and you have the recipe for a disaster that threatens $7 billion in fishing industry and the drinking water of more than 40 million.

This is indeed a crisis... And for a solution, it is clear that we need to look very carefully at Chicagoland's plumbing. No, not toilets and pipes. But how we deal with sewage and drinking water; and how Chicago's century-old arrangement affects the entire Great Lakes basin.

You see, in the late 1800's Chicagoans dealt with their own crisis: the pressing emergency of raw sewage mucking up Lake Michigan and their drinking water. Their solution was a very big, out of the box idea. The Chicago Diversion was a series of canals that reversed the flow of the Chicago River to move waste down to the Mississippi. Not only did this protect health in the region, but it also opened up new route for goods, allowing them to move from the East Coast to the Mississippi River in uninterrupted fashion for the first time. That is why the waterway being poisoned this week is called the "Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal."  Pretty clever, eh?

I find it ironic that today, the Lake is once again being destroyed by pollution---in the form of living invasive creatures---and that same spirit of innovation is necessary to fix the problem. The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal's connection to the Mississippi River basin makes the canal, and the rest of the Chicago Diversion, a conduit of that living pollution. Sadly, the response to the Asian carp's slow assault on the Great Lakes through the canal has not provoked the same big thinking of a century ago---just ad hoc fixes that are not long-term solutions.

The real solution to this problem is to dump the virtual fish fence in favor of a return to a permanent and durable separation between these ecosystems. As I've said before, its time to close the Chicago Diversion.

Underscoring the Asian carp threat, Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan called for her state's Attorney General to use all legal tools at his disposal this week. This could include the re-opening of a nearly century-old case sitting before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the Chicago Diversion to force immediate action around the carp issue. You see, even 100 years ago, the other Great Lakes states saw trouble in the Chicago Diversion. They weren't concerned about giant, hungry fish. They were concerned about a giant, thirsty city drinking more than their fair share. And downriver states were concerned about a giant, dirty city flushing its waste into their drinking water. And so they sued to stop the Chicago Diversion. By the time the Supreme Court was ready to weigh in, it was too late. The canals were dug and river reversed. All the Supreme Court was willing to do at that point was set limits on the amount of water that could be withdrawn from Lake Michigan.

Still, that open case - or some other legal action - might be used to close the canals to rebuff the fish. In the short-term, that's great. It's a real, physical barrier that can help keep the Asian carp out of Lake Michigan.

But the canals can stay closed for only so long. By Spring the shippers will be screaming and sewage will back up.

And that's why this is a crisis. Whether they haul a million dead carp out of the canal, or just one, it doesn't matter---the looming threat is unmistakable. Clear, resolute, and decisive action is necessary in the short-term to stop the fishes' advance. But emergency poisonings and closure of the waterway will not fix the underlying problem---it will just temporarily provide breathing space while real, scientifically sound, legally binding solutions are installed and public processes are engaged to once again close the door on the invasive species' advance up the Illinois River.

And if that doesn't happen, we've wasted a serious crisis.


Shedd Aquarium image by Kate.Gardiner via Flickr


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Dee ThompsonDec 5 2009 12:59 AM

THANK YOU!!!!! I am a life long resident of Michigan and fully aware of the fact that any damage to all the Great Lakes means serious damage to the entire nation. The "Lakes" contain the largest source of clean drinking water on the planet. Now think about all the droughts in the US alone over the course of the five years. Do you know how many of the areas hit were trying everthing they could to pump water out of the Great Lakes and transporting it wherever? Mainly the people of Michigan were the bad guys in not letting that happen.

Stopping this project before it began was not only Michigan's decision, it was in 'Majority Rule' agreement of all the surounding states and the government of Canada. Yes, Canada does have a say in all this. The US shares the lakes with Canada, they are not all US territory and believe what you will Canada is not the 51th state of the US. That being said, the above noted group were not and are not trying make enemies of the rest of the union. Their intent was (as anybody who pays attention to these things can tell you and proably will given half a chance, eh) for pumping water from the lakes to be the last of the list of ways to get water where it was needed, not the first.

If you have never been around or least seen the lakes close up you would understand why the folks that do live in this area are so protective of them anything that pertains to them. It is impossible for me to describe the beauty, the strenght and just the life affirming energy that they give out to anyone and everyone. While I would normally be one of the first to try to stop any group that wants to dump any kind of poison into the lakes. Just as I would be one of the first to want to use the technology that has created the electric barrier to zap out the carps instead. It is past time for some long term thinking about how to identify the whats and wheres of all the preservation issues. This could be used as a blueprint leading into a way to get rid of any and all of the known possible dangers to the lakes ecosystems.

Now the hard part is making everyone understand that anything that is 'dumped' into any of the lakes will work it's way thru the Erie Canal out to the Alantic Ocean and down thru old Miss right into the Gulf of Mexico. As you ponder that one a minute, bear in mind that the carp can follow the same route and kill off any fish to be found in those waterways. I could be wrong about this one but it also can affect the whole mess in a not so good way. This would be that this same poison used to kill off the carp can just as easily work it's way into the food chain where it becomes a toxin to humsns as well.

I agree with the concept of first close off Chicago's lame drain but there has to be follow up as to the rest of the nightmare. I'm sure that any workable ideas and/or methods on how to do it would be more than welcomed by the State of Michigan Natural Resources Department. And with that I shut my long winded self up.

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