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Thom Cmar’s Blog

Pull the Plug on the Electric Asian Carp Fence

Thom Cmar

Posted November 12, 2009

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Poison has been used to repel invading armies throughout history.  And it's just about to happen again outside Chicago.

In this case, the invading army doesn't come in the form of armed troops...  actually, they are fish.  But their threat is very real.  And this escalation of tactics points not only to a real failure to deal with an advancing threat, but also to an urgent need to rethink how we protect one of our nation's most important resources.

My colleagues Henry Henderson and Josh Mogerman have previously written about the Army Corps of Engineers' electric fish fence boondoggle that is now the only thing keeping giant and voracious Asian carp from invading Lake Michigan and irrevocably altering the Great Lakes ecosystem.

In September, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that the Asian carp had reached Chicagoland.  According to the Corps' DNA testing, the carp are now less than one mile from the electric fish fence in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.  The timing couldn't be worse. Despite the fact that the Corps recently added a second, more intense fish fence that has only been operating since April, it needs to be taken down for maintenance soon. When that happens, the Army Corps and Illinois Department of Natural Resources say, they will need to poison a stretch of the waterway with rotenone, a toxic chemical that would kill any fish that are exposed to it.  The poison cleanup will take two weeks and $750,000 when all is said and done.

Here's the real kicker:  none of the state or federal agencies involved think it's their job to pay for the mess. 

But the Army Corps thinks EPA's Great Lakes restoration money is the most logical choice.

I certainly agree that the carp's advance is an emergency and support immediate action, even if that involves a lot of bykill that would otherwise seem senseless and unacceptable.  But the idea of using Great Lakes cleanup money to poison the Chicago canal is offensive.  We need that money to clean up the polluted waters of the Great Lakes, to fix shorelines, and to restore destroyed habitat.  This action runs in the opposite direction of all those goals.  It is long past time for us to realize that the electric fish fence has failed.  We need a permanent solution that reestablishes the natural barriers between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes by closing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal - and really, the entire Chicago Diversion - for good.

Need more proof?  Well, all that electricity in the Rube Goldberg contraption on the Sanitary Ship Canal might not even address the problem of these giant predators swimming into Lake Michigan.  The Asian carp is also eating its way up the Des Plaines River, which runs north of the fish fence within hundreds of yards of the Chicago canal at some points.  This means that the Asian carp are just one flood away from making Lake Michigan look like this:

I don't mean to imply that the agencies overseeing this mess are unaware of the problem. They are studying it to death... The Army Corps has said that they are currently studying the feasibility of additional measures.  But what, exactly, are they studying?  In the Water Resources Act of 2007, Congress directed the Army Corps to conduct

"a feasibility study of the range of options and technologies available to prevent the spread of aquatic nuisance species between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basins through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and other aquatic pathways."

As far as I've been able to tell, the Army Corps has not disclosed publicly the range of "options and technologies" that they are considering.  At the same time, the Army Corps seems intent to build a new, third stage of the electric Asian carp fence, so that there can be three walls of electric current coursing through the Chicago canal, instead of only two.

But here is the good news:  there are better alternatives available, if we are willing to think big enough.

NRDC has been working for years to develop models for sustainable intermodal facilities in places like the Port of Los Angeles that integrate movement of goods from ships, trucks, and rail in a cleaner and more efficient way.  Investing in new sustainable transportation infrastructure would - if done right - create both green jobs and a permanent separation that helps keep the Asian carp (and other invasive species) out of the Great Lakes.  It could also help us achieve cleaner air.

The fish army must be repelled.  But perhaps we can find a way to do it that doesn't involve poisoning a tributary of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers twice a year?  A real solution to this problem will require political leadership and commitment from the highest levels of the Obama Administration, the State of Illinois, and the halls of Congress.  We need to start a process now that will result in pulling the plug on the electric fish fence boondoggle, and putting the Great Lakes on a path toward a more sustainable transportation system.

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