Alien Invasion

Toxic Asian carp invasion threatens the Great Lakes
April 1, 2010

There’s something “fishy” going on in an environmental battle that has pitted the state of Illinois and its favourite son, former Senator Barack Obama, against the rest of the Great Lakes region, including the province of Ontario.

The White House’s “Asian Carp Summit” in February was a disappointment to Michigan and its allies, with the federal plan for controlling invasive Asian carp, which threaten the Great Lakes ecosystem, seen as favouring Illinois. Basically, that plan would add another electronic barrier for keeping the Asian carp out of the lakes, continue monitoring the waters, and temporarily close the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (the locks and dams that connect Lake Michigan to the Illinois River) for three or four days a week over the next few months while experts study the problem.

A columnist for the Detroit Free Press wondered what new federal agency “will be created to teach carp how to tell what day it is so they won’t swim into Lake Michigan when the canal is open.”

“It’s a plan to limit damages, not solve the problem,” Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm told the press after the Summit. “You have to permanently shut these locks down.”

Obama, who campaigned as the prospective “Great Lakes president” with “zero tolerance” for invasive species in the five lakes, looks to be backing away from yet another campaign promise. Not only has Obama’s latest budget cut funding to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative by 37% for 2011, but his administration also seems willing to do everything but provide the obvious solution.

In mid-February, the U.S. government committed $78.5 million to conduct further research and build additional barriers – anything but close the canal permenantly. By March, the U.S. Geological Survey was enthusing about tapping the funding to “do some really exciting research” and experiments, such as using noisemakers and water cannons on the fish, developing new poisons that are species-specific to carp, or using pheromones to lure carp to designated sites for entrapment.

The 70-mile Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal is part of the Chicago Diversion: a 300-mile man-made waterway that links Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River via the Illinois River. Environmentalists call the Chicago Diversion “a highway of living pollution” by which more than 100 alien species have entered the Great Lakes. Already sickened by such intrusions, the lakes may be facing their biggest threat in Asian carp.


“Aquatic vacuum cleaners”

Asian carp from Taiwan and Malaysia were introduced into fish hatcheries and fish farms in Arkansas during the 1960s in an effort to keep retention ponds clean of algae. The big carp, often called “aquatic vacuum cleaners,” are voracious eaters that can grow to more than 100 pounds (48 kilos) and four feet (1.2 meters) in length.

After escaping from the fish farms in the 1980s, Asian carp have been eating their way up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, also taking over tributaries. They have now spread northwest along the Missouri River into South Dakota.

Asian carp quickly take over an ecosystem by eating all plankton and plant life, driving out indigenous species, and reproducing at high rates.

The U.S. publication On Earth (Dec. 18, 2009) stated: “The fear is that the carp will transform the Great Lakes ecosystem into something unrecognizable. One need only look at infested sections of the Illinois River, where federal environmental officials say that carp now comprise nine out of every 10 pounds of living material – plant or animal – found in the water.”

Besides ruining the ecosystem and the fishing industry, the Asian carp also ruin the recreational boating industry. When startled by motion or noise, the big fish jump as high as three metres into the air, hitting boaters and swimmers and driving people off the lakes.

Perhaps even more crucial, Asian carp harm the drinking-water supply. Devoid of plankton and plant life, a lake becomes remarkably clear – which allows sunlight to penetrate far deeper than before, causing large algae blooms that are habitat for toxins such as E.coli.

Asian carp are also implicated in increased levels of a toxic blue-green algae called Mycrocystis, which produces a poison that can cause liver damage. This algae is not digested by the carp and comes out the other end in stimulated form.


Taking the fish to court

Last November, Asian carp DNA was found in a canal close to Lake Michigan, indicating that the fish had passed through the electric barriers on the canal.

This threatened “alien invasion” prompted Michigan officials to file a Supreme Court lawsuit on December 21 against the State of Illinois, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Chicago, asking the Court to order temporary closure of locks on the canal, and to order a permanent severance of the link between the two ecosystems by reconsidering “Wisconsin vs. Illinois” – the 1929 Supreme Court case on the Chicago Diversion.

On Dec. 31, Ontario’s Attorney-General filed a motion supporting Michigan’s lawsuit, joining Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, New York, and Pennsylvania. Ontario borders on four out of five of the Great Lakes.

But the Obama administration, represented by Solicitor General Elena Kagan, told the U.S. Supreme Court that there was insufficient evidence of a threat, and that temporarily closing the shipping locks would cost shippers 10% more to move their products by land between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan.

Adding to the region’s frustration, in early January the Army Corps of Engineers admitted to the press that it had never operated the $22 million electric barriers in the canal at full power because it was “worried about the effects on nearby barges.” It was starting to look as though the U.S. federal government has more concern over barge traffic than an entire ecosystem in danger.

Then, on Jan. 19, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the motion for a temporary closure of the canal without explanation, and took no action on the other request to reopen the case on the Chicago Diversion. It later emerged that new scientific evidence, revealing Asian carp DNA in Lake Michigan itself, had been withheld by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers until after the Supreme Court hearing.


Ontario reaction

Ontario’s new Natural Resources Minister, Linda Jeffrey, told the Toronto Star (Jan. 21, 2010) that she was “disappointed” by the U.S. Supreme Court decision and that “Ontario will explore further participation in the legal efforts in the U.S. to stop the spread of the species.”

Two Michigan state politicians have introduced companion legislation, titled “Close All Routes and Prevent Asian Carp Today (the CARP Act), in the U.S. Senate (S.2946) and House (H.R. 4472) to force Illinois to close the locks. It was this action that led to the White House “Asian Carp Summit.”

Herb Gray, Canada’s chairman of the International Joint Commission, told CanWest News Service (Jan. 12, 2010) that the Great Lakes Treaty is “badly in need of updating” and may need “a major rewrite” in order to protect the ecosystem. “There is one very small obscure mention of alien species” in the existing Canada-U.S. agreement, he said.

In its 2010 budgetary recommendations to the Canadian federal government, the Green Budget Coalition, comprised of 21 Canadian environmental organizations, urged that “Canada must contribute roughly $43 million annually [for five years] to advance research and improve efforts to protect against invasive species” in the Great Lakes.


Closing the Chicago Diversion?

When it was built a hundred years ago, the Chicago Diversion was considered both an engineering marvel and a response to a public health issue. By linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi via canal, Chicago was able to dump its sewage, diluted with Lake Michigan water, into the Mississippi and keep it out of its own drinking water supply.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project essentially tilted the Illinois riverbed in the other direction so that the river flushed backward into the newly built Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, carrying away the sewage – a practice that continues to this day.

The construction of the canal also opened a navigation link between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico for the movement of goods through Chicago. But the other Great Lakes states were livid.

By 1925, those states launched a U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the Chicago Diversion as a threat to the ecology and economy of the Great Lakes. So much water was being pulled out of Lake Michigan via the Chicago Diversion that lake levels were dropping in the entire water system.

In its ruling in the case, “Wisconsin vs. Illinois” (1929), the Supreme Court allowed the Chicago Diversion to continue, but only under a negotiated Court order that is supposed to strictly regulate the amount of water that Illinois can withdraw from Lake Michigan. And the Supreme Court left open the possibility that it could change its mind if the Diversion were shown to cause harm in the future.


Reopening “Wisconsin vs. Illinois”

Over the years, the case has been periodically reopened, as new disputes and changing circumstances have required the Court to make changes to its original decree. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court capped the daily water-diversion from Lake Michigan at 2.1 billion gallons per day – a “cap” that critics say was routinely surpassed years ago, with the Chicago Diversion a form of water subsidy for Illinois urban sprawl.

The Chicago Diversion has also been central over the years to a variety of schemes to divert water from Northern Canada through the Great Lakes and into the U.S. Southwest.

Now, Michigan and its Great Lakes allies are saying that, because of the Asian carp threat, it’s time to reopen the “Wisconsin vs. Illinois” case and consider a permanent disconnection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. In other words, close the Canal/Chicago Diversion for good.

That call coincides with the recent release of a report by the International Upper Great Lakes Study Board, which found that drier weather and drought conditions from 1998 to 2008 had led to a drop of 20% in the quantity of water flowing into Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

A supreme Court date on Michigan’s legal petition to reopen “Wisconsin vs. Illinois” has not yet been set, but Illinois and the U.S. government had been directed to file their legal responses by Feb. 25, 2010. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Feeration, and the Alliance for the Great Lakes have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Michigan’s position. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission also endorses that position.

Just why Illinois and the Obama administration are so adamant about not closing the canal remains a key question in this debate.

(Joyce Nelson is a freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.)