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Chicago skyline on July 22 as high winds continue to push the waters of Lake Michigan over the top of the pedestrian and bike trail along the lakefront in Chicago. Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

By Daniel Macfarlane

Every fall, I take my environmental studies class camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan. Some years the beach extends more than three meters to the water. This year, in many spots, there was no beach at all.

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A U.S. Steel plant in Portage, Indiana spilled nearly 300 pounds of a cancer-causing chemical into Burns Waterway last month, documents from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) revealed.

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A U.S. Steel plant in Portage, Indiana has spilled wastewater containing a potentially cancer-causing chemical into Burns Waterway, a tributary about 100 yards from Lake Michigan.

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National Wildlife Federation

By Jeff Alexander

The federal government is winning the battle to keep Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, according to an Obama administration official.

Cameron Davis, the Obama administration’s point person on Great Lakes issues, told a group of conservation leaders this week that the government has stopped the advance of Asian carp, which—depending on whom you believe—are either 50 miles from Lake Michigan or already in the lake.

“We’re winning the war on Asian carp,” Davis said on Feb. 29 during a White House Great Lakes Summit, which was held in conjunction with Great Lakes Days in Washington, D.C.

Government crews are “beating back” the advance of Asian carp in the Chicago Waterway System, the network of manmade canals that form an artificial link between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, Davis said.

His claim was met with a stunned silence from the group of scientists and conservation leaders (including several from National Wildlife Federation) who were invited to participate in the Great Lakes Summit.

The reason—Researchers have repeatedly found traces of Asian carp DNA in Chicago-area waters with direct connections to Lake Michigan. Those findings suggest Asian carp have breached an electric fish barrier in the Chicago Waterway System and reached the southern fringe of Lake Michigan.

Faster action needed on separating Great Lakes, Mississippi River basins

The Obama administration has spent more than $100 million over the past two years to fight Asian carp and plans to spent another $50 million this year. That level of support is commendable.

Asian carp—which eat like hogs, breed like mosquitoes and leap out of the water when disturbed by the sound of boat motors—could decimate the $7 billion Great Lakes fishery and pose potentially lethal hazards to boaters in the region.

If the president wants to pull out all the stops in the fight against Asian carp, he must speed up efforts to separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently moving at a snail’s pace as it studies how best to prevent Asian carp in the Mississippi River system from invading the Great Lakes. The Corps plans to study the issue for at least three more years before recommending solutions.

Experts have said that separating Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River is the only sure way to prevent Asian carp and other harmful invasive species from moving between the two basins.

The Great Lakes Commission produced a report in January that offered three options for breaking the artificial connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin.

The looming threat

Currently, there are no reproducing populations of Asian carp in the Great Lakes. But individual Asian carp have been found in Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Chicago-area waters connected to Lake Michigan.

Given the mounting evidence of Asian carp lurking in southern Lake Michigan, it’s premature for government officials to claim they are winning the war against this menacing species of fish. Worse, it’s tempting fate.

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Clean Water Action

A much-anticipated study says separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins to prevent the spread of Asian carp and other invasive species is not only possible, but a natural step toward much-needed action to improve Chicago’s water infrastructure.

Great Lakes environmental groups reacting to the study, released Jan. 31 by the Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, commended the authors’ factual analysis concluding that separation is possible and that it must include essential upgrades to sewage, flood control and waterborne transportation while preventing the transfer of invasive species.

“The study is unprecedented in its scope and ambition, re-envisioning the Chicago Area Waterways System (CAWS) as a system that not only prevents invasive species from devastating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River and all their tributaries, but also makes sorely-needed improvements to core functions like moving people and goods, managing stormwater and maintaining water quality,” the partner groups said in a statement.

The study refocuses the Great Lakes region on a long-term permanent solution and away from stopgap measures that, on their own, will ultimately fail to stop the Asian carp’s march to Lake Michigan.

The authors note that restoring the natural divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins at Chicago can coordinate with efforts already under way by the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to improve water quality and reduce flooding.

The marauding bighead and silver carp are the poster fish for the ecological and economic havoc in the offing when invading species travel between the Great Lakes and Mississippi. Research estimates that the annual cost to the Great Lakes region from invasive species introduced by shipping is upwards of $200 million per year.

"Tens of thousands of constituents have spoken to their members of Congress through a postcard campaign asking for immediate action to stop the Asian carp,” said Cheryl Mendoza, associate director for Freshwater Future. “This study provides decision makers with the path to the permanent solution Great Lakes citizens have been asking for."

Since 2009, multiple hits of Asian carp DNA have been found lakeward of an electric barrier in the CAWS meant to keep the fish out of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. More recently, carp DNA has been reported in waters open to Lake Michigan.

Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says the study is the most specific evaluation to date of what it would take to achieve hydrologic separation at the CAWS. “Chicago and Illinois have been under a spotlight as the carp close in on Lake Michigan,” says Brammeier. “This report shines that light in a new direction—toward the transformation of the Chicago waterway into a resource of which everyone in the city, the state and the country can be proud.”

Since 2008, environmentalists have called for separating the artificially conjoined Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins—the only permanent solution on the table and one that has come to be embraced by states, cities and members of Congress alike.

“Separation is a modern 21st century solution for a 21st century problem,” says Jennifer Nalbone, director of Navigation and Invasive Species for Great Lakes United. “This study points the way to a solution that not only benefits the Great Lakes states, but also Canadian and Mississippi River stakeholders. Most of North America will ecologically and economically benefit from separating the two basins.”

The GLC-GLSLCI study clearly demonstrates that separation is possible, providing detailed background on three separation options that allow elected officials and community leaders to move the discussion to the next level. As any separation is intrinsically tied to the multiple uses of the waterway system, it is imperative the Chicago region be an engaged partner.

“The study has the potential to be a game-changer in the effort to restore and protect the Great Lakes,” says Jeff Skelding, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “It proves we have affordable solutions to the Asian carp crisis that benefit both our environment and economy. This report should put an end to excuse-making and foot-dragging and light a fire under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do its job so the nation can move forward on a solution to protect the Great Lakes and the jobs that depend on them.”

To that end, the partner groups stress that the study is a beginning, not an end, and should not be interpreted as a strict set of policy recommendations. Until separation is complete, they say strong interim protections must be implemented to protect against an Asian carp invasion, and note the study includes such measures within its long-term vision for separation. The groups also urge Congress to pass the Stop Asian Carp Act.

A plodding U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ study of the problem—the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study—could be expedited by incorporating findings from the GLC-GLSLCI study and starting separation planning now, the groups say.

“The study is a revelation. It puts solutions on the table that are both feasible and affordable,” says Marc Smith, senior policy manager with the National Wildlife Federation. “The onus is clearly now on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expedite its own study so the nation can stop talking about ‘if’ a solution is possible, and instead focus on ‘when’ people can be put to work to solve this problem once and for all.”

Thom Cmar, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, concurs. “We have a unique opportunity here because we know the invasion is under way and we know how to stop it.

“Not only can a barrier stop the spread of Asian carp and the rest of the harmful invasives moving on the waterway, it can also help revitalize the festering mess on the Chicago River—but only if we have the political will to act quickly, before it’s too late,” says Cmar, author of a 2010 study examining potential impacts of anti-invasive species barriers on Chicago’s waterways.

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