The fish that got away

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it has spent $110 million on electric barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that were supposed to keep Asian carp from swimming upstream to the Great Lakes.

It didn’t work in the initial testing phase in 2000. It clearly hasn't deterred some fish from crossing in the 14 years since. And, according to a recent report, it needs billions of dollars in upgrades and augmentation by other systems — and even then it might not work.

But Asian carp wasn’t the first failure for the barrier system of electrical grids, which were laid across the bottom of a canal to deliver a jolt of current that theoretically would deter fish from swimming across.

The initial purpose of the barrier was aimed at stopping critters coming from the other direction, European round gobies, an invasive species first spotted in the Great Lakes in 1990, which authorities were trying to stop from swimming down the Chicago waterway to the Mississippi-Missouri River system.

That didn’t work, either. And numerous environmental groups are concerned that the Corps of Engineers, which has avoided making recommendations on how to proceed, will use the complexities of its latest report to delay work that could be done very quickly and at least slow the rate at which Asian carp and other invasive species are getting into the Great Lakes from the Mississippi system, and vice versa.

Apparently the gobies didn’t mind the electrical field, or someone forgot that a goby stunned by the charge would still drift downstream with the canal’s current. Or maybe the gobies got across during the weeks when the Corps of Engineers shut down the electrical barrier for maintenance and there was nothing to stop fish from passing through.

Whatever the reason, the round goby has since reached the Illinois River, from where it has the potential to colonize streams throughout the massive Mississippi-Missouri basin that sprawls across most of the American heartland.

Asian carp, meanwhile, which were first imported to the South in the 1970s, came up the Mississippi to the Illinois River and are now just 50 miles downstream from Lake Michigan, with some evidence that at least a few have crossed into the big lake.


Michigan Sen. Carl Levin has been holding the Corps of Engineers to account in hearings aimed at finding the best way to prevent Asian carp and other invasive species from going between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Levin is among those who ultimately support complete separation of the Mississippi and its tributaries from the Great Lakes. The Army Corps of Engineers has put the cost of that at $15 billion or more, a figure that has been questioned by Levin and others as inflated.

In April, a spokesperson for Levin’s office said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had come up with some good news — a study that showed that the small fish seen crossing the electric barrier probably aren’t Asian carp.

The Fish and Wildlife study found that the nearest suitable Asian carp spawning grounds are far downstream, and Asian carp small enough to cross the electrical field were unlikely to travel that far upriver. But the spokesperson said that Fish and Wildlife had yet to provide a written report of those findings, which is needed for other scientists to vet the conclusions.

Also in April, a meeting among governors of eight Great Lakes states and premiers of Ontario and Quebec ended with hopeful words about protecting the lakes from invasive species, but the same stalemate over how best to do it.

Indiana and Illinois oppose closing the Chicago canal because it would cost businesses there money. The canal is also used to run off floodwaters during heavy rains in the Chicago area and to to drain stormwater and sewage systems. Canada, along with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York want to cut off the Mississippi from Lake Michigan because invasive species threaten multi-billion-dollar fishing and tourism industries.

David Hamilton, a policy advisor on Great Lakes issues for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, said the U.S. government should support a multi-pronged attack on the problem, doing what it can immediately while developing a long-term agreement to permanently separate the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins.

“The cost estimate by the Corps of Engineers is very high because the Corps made some very poor assumptions,” he said, including that most of the work would have to be done before the barrier would be effective. And Hamilton pointed out that Asian carp “are now reproducing in places where no one thought they could. But Asian carp isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of the problem.

“We’re allowing species to be imported and sold in North America without knowing what the effects will be. Complete and immediate separation (of the waterways) isn’t realistic right now, but if we can’t stop everything at once, let’s at least start working on the problem.”

A decade of failure

When I went to Illinois for the first time to write about the nascent Asian carp threat in 2002, I spent an afternoon with scientists who had been contracted by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to run tests to determine if electricity could be used to stop the fish. They had built a small-scale version of the barrier in a concrete ditch, and they said that while the adults were turned back by the charge they were using, juvenile carp seemed unfazed by it and routinely swam across.

The Corps had already installed a demonstration barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which links Lake Michigan to tributaries leading to the Mississippi. But local environmental activists complained that it often wasn’t hooked up to a power source. They also pointed out that the swirling currents set up by passing barges were likely to pull even larger fish across the electrical field, something the Corps now also acknowledges is a possibility.

The Corps built two larger barriers over the next decade with much more robust electrical conductors, but they had to be shut down occasionally for maintenance. And there was another problem. It turned out that if the electrical charge in the water was enough to deter the carp, it threatened the lives of people who fell into the water and also could create sparks on metal ships and barges, some of which carried potentially explosive materials.

The Corps experimented with various levels of electrical charge while insisting that the barrier was working. Meanwhile, a new technique called eDNA (environmental DNA), developed by Dr. David Lodge at the University of Notre Dame, was able to test water samples for DNA evidence of living animals. Several of those tests found Asian carp DNA in Calumet Harbor near Chicago, which is open to Lake Michigan. Asian carp DNA also has been detected at several other places around lakes Michigan and Erie, although only one adult Asian carp has been caught above the electrical barriers.

Then last January, the Corps released the results of a $25 million study that Levin had pushed for. It confirmed what critics had been saying for nearly 15 years — passing barges could weaken or eliminate the electrical field and allow adult fish to cross the electrical barriers. Underwater video cameras placed in the canal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed schools of small fish routinely swimming across the barriers.

The report said that closing off the Chicago canal would cost more than $18 billion and take 25 years to complete. Advocacy groups like the Great Lakes Fishery Commision and National Wildlife Federation that read the Corps report concluded that only about $2 billion would be required to close off the canal. But Levin’s office said when he raised that point the Corps responded that the physical barrier could not be done without spending roughly $16 billion to address flood control, sewage diversions and other problems that the barrier would create for the city of Chicago.

Chuck Shea, who manages the barrier project for the Army, told Bridge, “We are doing laboratory studies of some of the weaknesses that have been identified. We’re also preparing to build a permanent barrier” to replace the existing barriers, which are considered demonstration models.

Shea said that the new barrier would be more powerful than the existing demonstration barrier, which would also be updated. And new testing would be done with current strength and pulsing to see if that would make the system more effective against carp and less dangerous to people and ship traffic.

The Corps’ report was rebutted by a report by the Great Lakes Commission and supported by a couple dozen environmental groups concerned with the problems of invasive species in the Great Lakes.

That consensus report said the costs cited by the Corps of Engineers included sewage and flood control projects that the City of Chicago would have to undertake anyway and which shouldn’t be included as costs of closing off the waterway. The true cost of blocking the Mississippi waters from Lake Michigan would be $2-$5 billion depending on which method was selected, and could be completed within 10 years, the Commission report concluded.

Marc Smith of the National Wildlife Federation, one of the supporting groups, said the Corps of Engineers laid out the problems and several possible means of solving them but failed to offer guidance on what should be done.

“We need to work toward a long-term solution, but there are things we can do now. We can’t wait for a consensus on what separation (of the watersheds) should look like,” he said. “The Corps of Engineers put together a report with shaky-at-best direction, but they aren’t moving from there. Now they’ve decided to wait for Congress to tell them what to do.”

Smith said that even before a decision is reached on how or if to close the Chicago canal, other methods could be tried, including new locks and dams far downstream, water cannons that blast fish out of an area, bubbler devices that might keep fish from crossing and even fish-specific poisons in some stretches.

Opponents of closing the Chicago waterway argue that bighead and silver carp are unlikely to pose much of a problem in the Great Lakes because conditions aren’t right for them to spawn successfully.

Proponents reply that places like Green Bay on Lake Michigan, Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron and all of Lake Erie offer ideal habitat for the invaders to both feed and spawn, raising fears that the invasive carp will devour plankton that Great Lakes commercial and sports fish also depend on. And a study from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans found that all five of the Great Lakes offered some waters suitable for Asian carp to become established.

That Canadian report also said that if Asian carp manage to get into the lakes, they will disrupt the native species and radically change the ecosystem. Even more alarming, the Canadian scientists concluded that it would take as few as 10 mature female Asian and fewer than 10 males to create a sustainable population.

A Chicago route

The roots of the present Asian carp problem reach into the last quarter of the 19th century, when the population of Chicago exploded from 300,000 to more than 1.5 million. Typhoid and other waterborne diseases were endemic, and local streams that flowed into Lake Michigan were used as sewage and waste dumps.

Chicago was becoming Carl Sandburg’s “Hog butcher to the world.” One branch of the Chicago River was so filled with rotting debris from stockyards and meat packing plants that it was called Bubbly Creek.

It became obvious the city couldn’t keep dumping sewage and other pollutants into the same Lake Michigan waters that its citizens drank every day. Before 1900, the Chicago River flowed into the 22,000-square-mile lake.

Then some bright spark in the civil engineering department came up with an idea:

Let’s reverse that river so that it flows out of Lake Michigan and sends all of our sewage downstream to the Des Plaines River, the Illinois and hopefully all the way to the Mississippi after enough years of spring freshets.

No one seems to have given much thought to what that might do to the health and welfare of people living downstream. But the U.S. population in 1900 was 76 million, about a quarter of what it is today, and most of Illinois consisted of small towns surrounded by sparsely-populated farmland (still true today).

So a series of locks and canals were built on the main stream and several smaller creeks and the Chicago River was reversed to flow out of Lake Michigan rather than in. It was an environmental boondoggle that could not even be considered today, but it was a triumph of technology that 100 years later was hailed as “The Engineering Monument of the Millennium” by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Today, Chicago still needs the canal to send treated sewage water to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, and it would take billions of dollars to build new sewage systems to replace it. And some businesses rely on the canal to move goods mostly in and out of Chicago, although there is relatively little commercial through traffic to the Great Lakes.

Murray Johnson, a former member of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, said in his recent book, “The Great Lakes Ecosystem: Uses, Abuses and the Need for a Course Correction” that “Regrettably, business interests are gaining greater control over government policy and programs. At the present time in Canada and until recently in the U.S. governments grew more and more antagonistic to their own scientific staffs.

“They became blatantly hostile to pro-environment groups, branding some as illegitimate radicals. The socio-economic paradigm, with business at the center, leads us to environmental, social and economic crises that expose the flaws in our society.

"There may be no better example of Johnson’s criticism than the dispute over closing the Chicago waterway, where government agencies have attacked the findings of the scientists those agencies hired.

"The Chicago area waterways are only one of several places that offer carp a pathway to the Great Lakes, all of which will likely become economic battlegrounds. The Wabash River in Indiana and the Muskingum River in Ohio also have been infested with Asian carp, and there is a danger that normal spring flooding between small creeks and rivers like the Wabash in Indiana and Maumee in Ohio also could offer a routes into the Great Lakes.

"After bighead carp DNA was detected in 12 of 222 water samples from the Muskingum 80 miles above the Ohio, John Navarro of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources told reporters, ”This information seems to indicate they have already gotten past the dams. They’ve shown no tendency to slow down. They are barreling up these waterways."

An apocryphal quote has Winston Churchill saying, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

The quote is apocryphal because no one has been able to find a printed version. Despite its fuzzy provenance, you won’t find a better example of its validity than the way we’ve handled the threat that Asian carp pose to the Great Lakes.

Eric Sharp worked for 48 years as a reporter for the Buffalo Evening News, The Associated Press, The Miami Herald, The Detroit Free Press and numerous magazines, mostly writing about environmental and outdoors issues before officially retiring from the Free Press in 2012. He now splits his year between Florida, Michigan and western New York State where he continues to write about the same issues and is completing a book about environmental changes in the Great Lakes.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Linda Pierucki
Thu, 06/05/2014 - 12:07pm
Finallty! Eric Sharp has at least touched the third rail of the Asian carp/USACE boondoggle! The fact is, the entire USACE 'plan' is to have the federal taxpayers pay for an entire new, above-state-of-the-art sewer system for the City of Chicago. One quote found in the article from the Milwaukee Journal of Feb 8, 2014 "A Watershed Moment: Bulk of $15 billion plan not directly tied to stopping Asian carp- : "Jim Ridgway is an environmental engineer and board chairman for the Alliance for the Great Lakes who worked on Ullrich's earlier study. He said the Army Corps' plan to stop the carp would not just subsidize an upgrade of Chicago's wastewater system to catch up with the rest of America, it would build a wastewater conveyance, storage and treatment system like no other on the planet." Knowing the short -term memory capacity of the average voter, I have no doubt that most people have completely forgotten the Obama administration, soon after taking office in 2009, appointed Cameron Davis as 'Great Lakes Czar, along with a sizable commitment of $5 billion over 10 years toward his 'efforts'. Davis was appointed by Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA. Notably, we havent heard a peep out of Davis -or where the money is going- since ( ). It turns out that the aptly-acronymed tunnel and reservoir construction project-called TARP-is well underway. The question then becomes, who is paying for this new above-state-of-the-art sewer system for Chicago? Certainly not the City of Chicago nor the state of Illinois: in real financial terms, Chicago is farther into an undeclared bankruptcy that Detroit-the only difference being that they are getting continuous infusions of tax monies from all of us that Detroit doesnt get. Taken together, all of these bits of information add up to yet another massive EPA-directed siphoning of taxpayer funds to political cronies and politicized 'causes'. Meanwhile, other states and cities struggle to squeeze their budgets to actually stop the spread of Asian carp, while the dollars already paid for this effort are diverted to bail Chicago out once again. And the Asian carp continue to advance!
Graydon DeCamp
Fri, 06/06/2014 - 7:30am
Linda has it right. Having spent years boating on the Ohio River system and dealing with the Corps of Engineers, I long ago concluded that the corps exists primarily to serve commercial and commercial shipping interests. There's no gainsaying the value to the nation of the inland navigation system they have designed, built and operated. It's a marvel of engineering. But the Corps also know who controls the flow of taxpayer money that it feeds on. Their concern for the Great Lakes is basically concern for its viability as a commercial waterway, not as a precious recreational and environmental asset. If they truly were concerned about the lakes' cleanliness and health, they'd have stopped the carp ages ago. They have the resources, but not the will. If we ordinary taxpayers want the corps to stop the carp, we must apply relentless pressure on the politicians who control the purse our money passes through.
Tom Matych
Sat, 06/07/2014 - 6:47am
The lead asian carp biologist has now said we do have native predators that can control Asian Carp. We have several native species that will eat the eggs fry and juvenile Asian Carp, juvenile asian carp are considered very bad at avoiding predators. Surving the spawn attempt is the most vulnerable time for all fish including the carp. Restoring native species can be done (stocking) for far less than $110. million dollars so far to block one spot, billions more also for just one spot, that will result in Chicago getting a new sewer system at our expense, and we still get the carp. Using native predators (biological control) is part of the overall Asian carp plan, restoring the native fish/predator population or the natural biotic resistance of our lakes does not interefere with any other Asian Carp plans in any way. Be it barriers, noise makers, ray guns what have you. The carp have already got past several regular dams, any barrier with a swim thru design? Common carp studies have shown you have to stock predators after removal, or the ones you miss just fill up the hole you made increase even, because you just made it easier for them, removed competition and predators. Proven because they have been taking out millions of pounds and the asian carp keep increasing doubling every year. They catch thousands of carp fish not pounds per month in "barrier defense" just 30 miles below the barrier, you can see the amounts on the website under sampling barrier defense, also seems to be increasing. We can restore native fish now, while they argue over water cannons or whatever, make our lakes AND rivers as resistant as possible hard for them to survive the spawn just like the carp and the other invasive species are doing to native fish. Native Perch have all the attributes required to be Asian carp predators they only need to be abundant now at an all time low. The worst that can happen is more Perch and other native fish, Perch also eat zebra/quagga mussels. Just in case the barrier/ water/ cannon light show doesn't work! We can start now not 25 years from now!
Mon, 06/09/2014 - 2:13pm
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers takes the job of controlling invasive species like Asian carp very seriously, and we work with our partners every day to do so. We are building a new electric barrier that incorporates over a decade of research, intensively monitoring the waterways to track the fish, discussing long-term aquatic nuisance species (ANS) controls outlined in our Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS) Report, and providing technical assistance to our partners. There are a few items in this article that our team at the Corps Chicago District would like to clarify. The Corps has been operating the electric demonstration barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal since 2002 – two other barriers came online in 2009 and 2011, and the Corps is now working on building a new barrier that was authorized as an upgrade to the demonstration barrier. Only the demonstration barrier is being upgraded. The other two existing barriers were built to be permanent structures. Each new barrier takes lessons learned from the previous one. Multiple barriers are needed for redundancy – when any routine maintenance needs to occur, we have others in place to continue operation to deter fish. In reference to the round goby, the first round goby was found downstream of the barriers site in October 1999, approximately 1.5 years before the construction of the barriers began. Gobies didn’t penetrate the electric barrier to establish a downstream population. They were already downstream of the barrier site when the demonstration barrier was activated. Regarding the fish-barge interaction studies, released December 2013, future research will include a variety of simulations to further evaluate fish behavior, effects of the electrical field on groups of fish and how these may relate to operational protocols of the barriers and navigation in the area. The research will be undertaken by the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). Findings like these are why the Corps continues to monitor the area closely; it presents opportunities to strengthen the barriers already in place. There is no evidence that Asian carp have bypassed the barriers; nor is there any indication Asian carp are in the vicinity of the barriers. The closest adult Asian carp population found in the Illinois River is about 55 miles from Lake Michigan, and no small Asian carp have been observed closer than 131 miles from Lake Michigan. To date, only a single bighead carp has been collected above the electric barriers; this was in Lake Calumet in summer 2010, and scientists have not determined how it got there. One of our monitoring methods is to tag fish and then track them. Individually-coded transmitters have been surgically implanted into more than 300 fish of all sizes in the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS). There have been over 8.9 million detections indicating no tagged fish have crossed the barriers in the upstream direction. The GLMRIS Report was submitted to Congress and released to the public in January 2014. It outlines eight potential plans within the CAWS to address the transfer of ANS like Asian carp between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins through aquatic pathways. Several of these plans include physical barriers. The CAWS is the only known continuous connection between the two basins and has many uses, including navigation, water supply and conveyance, flood risk management and recreation. Construction of measures to offset adverse impacts like reservoirs or conveyance tunnels would be completed prior to or simultaneously with construction of the control measures. It does not take 25 years to build a dam in a waterway; however, mitigation measures make up the majority of the cost and timeline. We have to ensure we are not increasing harm to the public or the environment. The proposed mitigation measures have been designed to mitigate the adverse impacts caused by the proposed dams, not to improve upon the status quo. Today’s solution should not become tomorrow’s problem. $15 billion is the conservative cost estimate for physical barrier alternatives based on a conceptual level of design. The Corps emphasizes that since ANS control is a shared responsibility, a continued discussion among the appropriate federal, state, regional and public stakeholders is necessary to refine assumptions and gain possible efficiencies in these estimates. Focus Area 2 of GLMRIS addresses the potential pathways outside of the Chicago Area Waterway System that may become sites for transfer during periods of high water. We are working with state and local agencies to move forward on options at these sites, such as the separation berm at Eagle Marsh in Indiana. For more info on Corps Control efforts and GLMRIS, visit: and
Tom Matych
Tue, 06/10/2014 - 7:43am
My My, build all the barriers you want, I do not believe barriers will stop them, all I'm saying is we a a viable biological control we can use now and forever (longterm) at controlling the Asian Carp population among other invasive species. This is science based, part of the Asian Carp plan, and there is no logical reason to not do it now. Electric barriers water cannons or what have you controls stop when funding stops. Restoring and maintaining high native predator levels can be done at low cost, in addition to barriers etc.... Lack of or lacking enough predators (overfishing) allows all invasive species to get a foothold/thrive. Currently alewives are the dominant fish in lake michigan (they eat the same zooplankton as Asian Carp) gobies are No2, the plan is to increase alewives even more (predator stocking reductions) how do I know this? I asked the alewife guy, yes we pay an alewife guy. D. Chapman asian carp expert says we can control asian carp with predators, if we don't use them then we are not doing everything we can to keep the asian carp from taking over our lakes and rivers. Be proactive make our ecosystem unfavoarable to the carp now. Like down south once the A. carp pull off a spawn the end comes fast, without predators to eat that spawn attempt it comes faster!