NEW YORK TIMES
Published: December 20, 2011
CHICAGO - The leaders of the Great Lakes states
had come to a moment of calm, glassy waters. It was 2008, and after years of
negotiation, politicians in the eight states around the lakes had reached
a compact that would protect their (and their Canadian counterparts')
precious freshwater from what they saw as one of the Midwest's biggest threats:
tapping from other, water-hungry regions.
But a different threat soon broke the peace.
Tests began indicating that genetic material from
Asian carp, a nonnative, voracious fish with the potential to upend the
lakes' ecosystem, had been discovered in the major waterway system leading to
Lake Michigan. Last year, fears grew worse: A 19.6-pound bighead carp was
captured there not far from the lake - beyond an elaborate electric fence system
that had been built to prevent just such an outcome.
The states have split. Some, led by water-ringed
Michigan, have filed legal actions aimed at ending access between the Great
Lakes and the Mississippi River and its tributaries, where Asian carp already
were flourishing. Others, including Illinois, have objected, saying any such
closing would interfere with Chicago's ability to control flooding as well as
with the commercial barges that haul sand,
coal, cement and salt through the waterway.
In the eyes of some, the fierce debate has
shouldered out discussion of other pressing concerns on the Great Lakes:
pollution, repair of harbors, restoration of wetlands and even an early test of
the compact, expected in the coming months, about whether to
divert water to a city not on the lakefront, Waukesha, Wis.
"It's unquestionable that the Asian carp
challenge and issue has probably gobbled up 90 percent of the attention of the
Great Lakes challenges, and other matters probably have not gotten as much
national attention," said
Patrick J. Quinn, the governor of Illinois and the co-chairman of the
Council of Great Lakes Governors, one of numerous groups representing
interests of the lakes. "Locally, in the Great Lakes states, almost any
conversation about the Great Lakes begins with the Asian carp, ends with the
For at least a decade, people in the Midwest have
worried about the arrival of Asian carp, which was first imported to the United
States in the 1970s to help fish farmers in the South clean up their
algae-filled ponds. The bighead and silver carp are viewed as such ravenous
eaters that many feared they would travel up the Mississippi River system
through the waterway system that lead to Lake Michigan, where they could wreak
havoc with the lake's ecosystem and fishing industry, then spread through the
other Great Lakes.
The concerns were quieted, at least for a time,
by an elaborate, multimillion dollar electric fence system the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers built in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which links the Great
Lakes to the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Some officials say the
barriers (combined with intensive carp fishing efforts farther south) have kept
the carp from making their way north into the Great Lakes. But others were
alarmed by the recent DNA tests of water samples that detected genetic material
of Asian carp (results that have themselves been the subject of a debate over
their true significance) beyond the barriers.
"This is what boggles the mind here: We can send
a man to the moon but we can't stop a carp from reaching the Great Lakes?" said
Bill Schuette, the attorney general of Michigan, which has led a legal and
political fight to close locks that allow water to flow between the Mississippi
River and the Great Lakes and, ultimately, to separate those two water systems
Historians say early travelers were sometimes
able to make their way between the lakes and the river in the wet season, but a
canal, built more than 100 years ago, made permanent the link between the two
A lawsuit filed by Michigan and four other Great
Lakes states against the Chicago water authorities and others is making its way
through the legal system. And Mr. Schuette has collected signatures from 17
attorneys general, including some from other parts of the country (though not
Illinois or Indiana) urging members of Congress to require the Army Corps of
Engineers to expedite a study it is conducting of the entire Asian carp issue.
"Their failure and lack of responsibility is the
sorriest thing I've ever seen," Mr. Schuette said of the Army Corps, which has
said it may need until 2015 to finish its study. "They have failed on the job."
For its part, the Army Corps says its study must
proceed with care and thoroughness, looking at whether measures like electric
fences and chemicals can successfully hold off
invasive species. If authorities were to decide on the far more drastic
option - to separate the water basins from each another - that could, by some
estimates, take years, cost billions, and require an engineering feat comparable
to one a more than a century ago that reversed the flow of the Chicago River.
Some lake advocates and states like Michigan see
this as the only eventual option, while some in Chicago, Illinois and Indiana,
which depend on the current alignment as a way to manage floodwaters during
heavy rains and storms, sound more circumspect.
"This is a humongous decision," said Dave
Wethington, the project manager for the Army Corps in Chicago. "We must remain
unbiased. We are the stewards of the tax dollars," he said, later adding,
"Trying to make a decision of this magnitude is one of the best times to have an
Meanwhile, among the many groups focused on
interests of the Great Lakes, some say the Asian carp issue has not caused so
much strife between the states as to slow progress on other matters. Talks, they
say, have mostly remained civil. "I think that there was a real concern that it
might lead to a fundamental breakdown in cooperation, but that hasn't been the
case," said David Naftzger, the executive director of the Great Lakes governors.
In fact, some here see other opportunities hidden
away in the race to solve the Asian carp threat - perhaps a remade, more
attractive and cleaner Chicago River; a reinvented route for commercial barge
products headed from or to the South; long-needed fixes to the region's flooding
Still, the tensions loom. "We understand these
other states, especially Michigan, are in a litigious mood and are involved in
filing litigation, but they have to deal with real-life consequences," Governor
Quinn said. "When they say shut down the locks, you could have in the biggest
metropolitan area in the entire Great Lakes region massive flooding."