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Guest column: Asian carp aren't waiting for us

By Patty Birkholz/Michigan Office of the Great Lakes

In my role as director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes, many documents come across my desk in the course of a typical week. On Jan. 31, one of the most important documents of the last year arrived in my in-basket.

After a high-profile and intense 18-month period of data collection, engineering analysis, consultation and writing, the Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative released a report, “Restoring the Natural Divide.”

The key study developed alternative approaches and cost analyses for three solutions to permanently re-separate the Chicago Area Waterways to defend the Great Lakes against the incursion of Asian carp species.

The good news: This study demonstrates ‘do-able solutions.’

While other technologies are being explored, we believe that ecological separation is the best for long-term sustainability in keeping Asian carp and other invasive species out of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

This report provides an excellent basis for advancing and continuing that discussion.

As some know, the Chicago River originally flowed into Lake Michigan. At the turn of the 19th century, the flow of the river was reversed. Water was diverted from Lake Michigan through the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal in the city of Chicago and was sent down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River. For almost 100 years after this diversion was created, this channel was too polluted to support life. However, the Clean Water Act forced changes in wastewater treatment that eventually led to some fish and other aquatic life being able to survive in the canal. It is that human-created connection between Lake Michigan and the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers systems that is threatening to be the gateway for Asian carp to enter the Great Lakes.

Implementing the measures identified in the study would protect the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin from transfer of aquatic invasive species, improve water quality in both basins, solve challenging flood control issues in the Chicago Area Waterways System and maintain and enhance shipping and recreational boating use.

Importantly, this study highlights the costs, the benefits and the potential future economic impacts if we do nothing. While it’s not going to be cheap, when the cost is spread across the Great Lakes region over 50 years, the least expensive alternative would cost an average household less than one trip to McDonald's per year ($11 per year).

While some will say they can’t pay, if the 5 million people served by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in Chicago made the same investment as individual communities around Michigan, all the benefits of hydrologic re-separation of the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes can be achieved.

We can avoid future economic damages to both the Great Lakes and Mississippi Basin by “preventing future invasive species with similar impacts which could generate up to $9.5 billion in savings.” We cannot afford one more invasive species introduction into the Great Lakes.

These approaches presented are a reasonable investment toward a broader and more comprehensive vision for modernizing the Chicago waterways system and offer far reaching economic and ecological benefits for not only the Great Lakes, but the city of Chicago and Mississippi River Basin.

The study also recognizes that the benefits increase nationally, clearly justifying a role for the federal government and a federal investment. In the long run, this work will be a bargain to Chicago, the Great Lakes region, and the entire United States.  Everyone has a role and many will have to pay to fully implement a viable solution.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has undertaken the Great Lakes-Mississippi River Inter-basin Study to look at all potential pathways, species, and control technologies to keep invasive species from moving between the two Basins. It is expected to be completed in four years.

The Asian carp are not waiting, why should we?

Now that we have been presented with promising options to address this challenge, the Great Lakes community needs to step up and work together to make decisions on the options, put together the funding to move forward and get this done.

I urge you to become informed about this important new study and to add your voice to those who would like to see decisions made and actions taken as soon as possible.

For more information about the study, please visit the “Restoring the Natural Divide” website at www.glc.org/caws.

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