Since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, the Great Lakes have been locked in an unhealthy marriage with the Atlantic Ocean and the rest of the world.
Before then, the Great Lakes had evolved over the millennia their own ecosystem, physically separated from invasion by non-native species. But once oceangoing freighters could take on ballast water loaded with non-native critters, sail up the St. Lawrence Seaway and dump it in our lakes, it was all over.
Think of the sea lamprey, which devastated native lake trout. Think of spiny water fleas, gobies and zebra mussels. The Environmental Protection Agency lists 185 non-native species now infesting the Great Lakes, of which at least 13 are considered “invasive,” doing ecological or economic harm.
As a practical matter, neither separation nor divorce is possible. The bad environmental and economic effects of invasive species cost many, many millions now -- and will continue in the future. Just like psychological counseling for kids damaged by a bad marriage, all we can do about invasive species in the Great Lakes is mitigate the damage.
Fast forward to the Asian carp, which, after traveling remorselessly up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, now threaten to enter the Great Lakes via the Chicago River. In 2009, they breached electronic barriers operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Chicago Area Water System, and last year a live Asian carp was captured in Lake Calumet, just six miles from Lake Michigan.
For years, lots of people have been wringing their hands about the carp threat. Once established, it’s impossible to get rid of the carp, which are voracious feeders and could threaten Michigan's $7 billion fishing industry. And it isn’t just the carp; the Corps of Engineers has identified 10 other species that are poised invade the lakes by coming up the Mississippi.
The Great Lakes were connected to the Mississippi River when the flow of the Chicago River was reversed in 1900. Previously, the river flowed into the bottom of Lake Michigan. Sewage from Chicago got into drinking water drawn from Lake Michigan, causing illness. So the 28-mile Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was constructed, allowing Chicago’s sewage to flow into the Mississippi.
The Ship Canal was greeted enthusiastically, just as was the St. Lawrence Seaway. Nobody ever considered the downside of linking what previously had been separate and thriving ecosystems.
The downside is now painfully clear. For around a decade, people have been pulling and hauling about what to do about it. Environmentalists want to put up barriers to keep the carp out; Chicago shipping interests are opposed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been studying the problem for four years already. The Corps says it will take another three years before it can reach any conclusions. Opinions differ on whether the Corps is: a) incompetent; b) irremediably bureaucratic; c) open to political pressure; or d) all three.
Now comes a report released last month concluding that, “Physically separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds is the best long-term solution for preventing the movement of Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species, and our report demonstrates that it can be done,” according to Tim Elder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, which sponsored the work.
Funded by private nonprofit donations and taking only 14 months to complete (!), the report “demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that hydrological separation is not only feasible, but cost effective,” according to Andy Buchsbaum, head of the Midwest office of the National Wildlife Federation.
The study proposes three possible separation methods, of which the most likely is one that has an estimated cost of $3 billion. “That’s a lot of money,” says Buchsbaum, “but if you compare it to the repairs the Detroit sewage system will have to undergo, it’s not out of the ballpark.” Not only that, but the analysis shows that preventing even one invasive species from entering the lakes would save as much as $5 billion.
Not surprisingly, this is a popular conclusion. Six of 10 Michiganders favor erecting anti-carp barriers, according to an EPIC/MRA poll released last month.
So while all the political shouting is going on, is there something we can do right away? Yep.
The National Wildlife Federation has drafted a Great Lakes pledge that all candidates for president are being asked to sign. It calls for a permanent solution to the threat of invasive species, construction of a hydrological barrier between the Lakes and the Mississippi and maintained funding for Great Lakes restoration.
Every presidential candidate should be asked to sign the petition, including Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who are now crisscrossing Michigan before our presidential primary next week. To get a copy for candidates to sign, go here. It’s a case where citizen involvement can actually make a big difference for us, our children and our children’s children.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.