Archive for December, 2009

The New York Times Weighs In

December 29, 2009

Today’s editorial in the Times recognizes how devastating an Asian carp invasion would be to the Great Lakes, and it recommends both emergency closure of the navigational locks in the Chicago canal system and a permanent separation between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin. Support for those common sense measures is building.

I hope the Army Corps of Engineers is listening; there’s no need to wait for a Supreme Court order to do the right thing.


Asian Carp Won’t Wait

December 28, 2009

First, for a good take on Michigan’s lawsuit against Illinois over the invasive Asian carp, check out yesterday’s Washington Post article.

And thanks to NWF’s senior attorney Neil Kagan, we’ve got some more info on the legal processes and timelines for the carp lawsuit:

  • Ohio filed a motion on December 23 in support of Michigan’s request to modify the Supreme Court consent decree that governs the Chicago diversion in order to stop Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan.
  • Illinois’s response to Michigan’s filings is due December 31.
  • The Supreme Court is meeting in a regularly scheduled “conference” on January 8, and it will take up Michigan’s lawsuit then. Nobody knows what issues it will decide then, much less how it will decide them.

So despite the Supreme Court’s reputation for slow and deliberate action, at least for now this case is moving at warp speed. And that’s essential, because the Asian carp won’t wait.

Coming soon to the U.S. Supreme Court: Asian carp

December 21, 2009

Michigan just took the Asian carp controversy to a whole new level: the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s where Michigan today filed its lawsuit against the state of Illinois and the Army Corps of Engineers in a last ditch effort to keep the monster carp from invading the Great Lakes.

Supreme Court

Supreme Court

Michigan is asking the Supreme Court to order Illinois and the Corps to deploy the last barrier remaining between the Asian carp and Lake Michigan by temporarily shutting the navigational locks in the Chicago canals. Michigan has also asked the Court to order a permanent separation between Chicago canals and Lake Michigan.

This lawsuit recognizes how high the stakes are in the effort to keep the Great Lakes safe from the invasive carp, and Michigan’s leadership in filing it is commendable. I’ve pasted below NWF’s news release and my statement in support of the lawsuit.

But as high as the stakes are in the Asian carp controversy, this lawsuit potentially has other, equally seismic impacts. That’s because in making its filing, Michigan seeks to reopen the 80-year old Chicago Diversion case – the Supreme Court case allowing Chicago to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and divert billions of gallons of Lake Michigan water to the Mississippi River basin.

The diversion has lowered the levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron at least 3 inches. And It’s the Chicago Diversion that has put the Great Lakes at risk for the Asian carp invasion.

The original purpose of the diversion, back in the 1800s, was to solve Chicago’s sewage problems. Chicago was dumping huge amounts of untreated sewage into Lake Michigan and fouling its own drinking water supply. The sewage solution? Direct Chicago’s waste away from Lake Michigan. To do that, the city and the federal government constructed an elaborate canal system that connected the lake to the rivers that flow into the Mississippi, and then reversed the flow of the Chicago River through those canals. As Chicago’s sewage became cleaner and diluted with Lake Michigan water, an entire economy grew up around the barge and ship traffic in the canals.

The Diversion no longer protects the Great Lakes; instead, it’s the lakes’ single biggest threat.

Now, I don’t want anybody to get distracted here, but Michigan’s lawsuit gives us a means to redo the Chicago Diversion. For the Supreme Court to grant Michigan’s requested permanent relief – the separation of the Chicago canal system and the Mississippi River basin from Lake Michigan – the Court will have to order a replumbing of the Chicago Diversion. Physically, there’s no other option. And that could mean restoring a more natural flow into Lake Michigan and bringing back higher lake levels just as climate change pushes those levels lower.

But those results are down the road. Right now, we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball: closing the navigational locks right away.

We have a five alarm emergency; let’s hope the Supreme Court treats it that way.

Read the rest of the entry for NWF’s press release, or download the press release (pdf).


Are the Great Lakes shrinking?

December 17, 2009

The Great Lakes have lost water because of navigational dredging in the St. Clair River — 21 inches for Lakes Michigan and Huron, according to an International Joint Commission (IJC) study released this week. But are they continuing to decline? Is the opening in the river widening, draining increasing amounts of water from the upper Great Lakes? 

Lake St. Clair

Lake St. Clair

Those are the questions the study by the IJC’s “International Upper Great Lakes Study Board” was supposed to lay to rest. But it fell far short. Sure, the study concluded that all the erosion was in the past, that the river was no longer widening, and so lake levels would not be affected in the future. The problem is that the study was deeply flawed, ignoring mounds of data and scientific studies that contradicted its conclusions. 

And this study matters in a very practical way. It will be used by the IJC to determine whether remedial measures should be taken in the St. Clair River – perhaps even structures built – to return the lake levels and flows to a more natural state. 

With climate change predicted to lower the levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron by as much as 3 feet in the next century and pressures to manage those levels increasing, those decisions are critical.

The Great Lakes deserve better than this study. 

National Wildlife Federation’s Melinda Koslow and Dr. Mike Murray, who have been working to improve the study for over a year, provided more detail about the study’s flaws in this news statement released Tuesday; I’ve reprised that below. And for an excellent analysis, check out Dan Egan’s piece in the Milawaukee Journal Sentinel

For immediate release:
December 15, 2009


Despite multiple responses and scientific studies questioning findings, a report released today by the International Upper Great Lakes Study Board, a U.S.-Canada expert panel established by the International Joint Commission, refused to change its controversial conclusions about water losses through the St. Clair River. 

Their final report again concludes that there is no ongoing erosion in the St. Clair River and therefore an examination of possible remedial measures is not necessary. 

This conclusion is a result of a multi-million dollar publicly funded study, and the best opportunity to address the issue of unnatural water losses from Lakes Michigan and Huron. 

“Dredging and erosion in the St. Clair River has had a massive impact on Great Lakes water levels, and there’s substantial evidence that this erosion is continuing,” said Melinda Koslow, NWF’s Great Lakes Climate Safeguarding Manager. “But the study ignores or dismisses that evidence in concluding that erosion has stopped and no action should be taken. That ‘no action’ conclusion puts the Great Lakes at further risk.” 

NWF identified a number of major problems with the Study Board’s report, including: 

  • Lack of acknowledgment of findings on potential erosion and other changes in the sediment bed of the river, and downplaying of significant changes in bathymetry (bottom depth) between 1971 and 2008.
  • Failure to calculate or estimate flow of water losses through the River.
  • Actively neglecting scientific studies that contradicted their conclusions.

“At a minimum, these findings raise the possibility of ongoing erosion of the St. Clair River bed over the past four decades, but it is not clear that the full Study Board has been open to this possibility,” said Michael Murray, Ph.D., Staff Scientist with NWF’s Great Lakes office. 

“The way the Study was conducted makes us think that the results were pre-determined. The Study authors blocked the kind of transparency a public process normally encounters,” Koslow added. 


Close the navigation locks? It’s a question of risk.

December 11, 2009

In the past two weeks I’ve talked to a lot of people, including many officials on the Rapid Response Team, and I haven’t found anybody who disagrees with this statement: any Asian carp beyond the electric fence have an open path to Lake Michigan unless the navigational locks are closed.

So if there are Asian carp beyond the fence, then the agencies really have no choice. No matter what the drawbacks, they have to close the locks until they can find other ways of cutting off those monster fish from the Great Lakes. The consequences of their invasion would be too devastating, ecologically and economically. And I think you’d find that the agencies would agree.

So why is it so hard to get the Corps and the other agencies to close the locks?

I think it’s their perception of risk.

People see risk very subjectively, and the folks in the agencies are no different. In this case, their perceptions are colored by what they have described as some very harmful consequences from closing the locks: lost materials, lost jobs, maybe even flooding in Chicago. Now, there’s a real question about how many of these consequences are real and how many could be avoided, but that’s an inquiry the agencies would rather not pursue. So instead, they engage in a little wishful thinking about how likely it is that Asian carp are present beyond the electric fence in the Cal Sag channel.

What’s the risk that there Asian carp in the channel?

Nobody knows for sure, but here’s what the evidence says.

On the one hand, we know that DNA tests taken in the water in the Cal Sag channel contain Asian and silver carp DNA. How many are positive? Not one, not two, but 32 tests found Asian and silver carp DNA in various places along the channel.

On the other hand, sampling in the river hasn’t turned up any Asian carp fish. That sampling included electroshocking and extensive netting by commercial fisherman in parts of the channel. It caught 800 other fish, but no Asian carp. Now, we don’t know how extensive that sampling was. The Illinois DNR is due to put out a report soon that will tell us. But based on what we know, the sampling caught only a fraction of the total fish in the channel.

So what does the evidence mean? To understand it better, look at what happened at the other stretch of canal where DNA testing and sampling was done, the 6-mile stretch between the Lockport Lock and the electric fence. There, DNA testing only had one positive sample. There, the agencies did extensive electroshocking and netting. And there, they found no Asian carp…. until they killed all the fish in that stretch of the canal with poison. Only then did they find an Asian carp (dead by that time). And they now believe there are probably more dead Asian carp at the bottom of the canal.

So based on that experience, it’s reasonable to expect that there are Asian carp in the Cal Sag channel. There’s much more Asian carp DNA in the channel than there was in the canal, and the sampling techniques used in the Cal Sag channel were the same ones that failed to reveal the Asian carp that was present in the canal. Bottom line, the presence of carp in the canal is a strong indicator of carp in the channel, even though the channel sampling hasn’t found them yet.

Asian carp jumping

Asian carp | Photo: Jason Lindsey

I suspect that this is where the agencies have gone wrong. They don’t want to close the locks unless there’s solid proof that there are populations of Asian carp in the channel, and to them, that means finding live fish.

But they’ve missed the point. Sure, close the locks if they find hundreds of Asian carp. But also close the locks if there’s a significant risk of Asian carp in the channel. And the way the evidence looks now – in fact, the way it’s looked for the past three weeks since the Asian carp DNA tests were first released – there’s a high risk that Asian carp are in the channel.

If the agencies have evidence they haven’t shared, let’s see it. Otherwise, no more delay. It’s time to close the locks.

This Dithering is Alarmingly Familiar

December 9, 2009

Read Jeff Alexander’s post from NWF’s Wildlife Promise about the eerie and alarming resemblance between the government’s dithering over closing off Asian carp access to the Great Lakes and the government’s failure to stop invasions from the St. Lawrence Seaway:

Asian carp: History offers an important lesson, but will we repeat the past?

-By Jeff Alexander

American philosopher George Santayana once made a chilling comment about those who forget the lessons of history, saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Santayana’s comment is particular relevant considering the current, frantic effort to keep Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes.


O'Brien Lock and Dam | Photo: US Corps

O'Brien Lock and Dam | Photo: US Corps

A heated debate is brewing over whether to close locks in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to prevent Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan and, ultimately, colonizing all the Great Lakes. Shipping interests argue that closing the canal would hurt their industry.

The question at hand is whether dramatic — perhaps radical — action is needed to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. That’s where history can teach government officials an important lesson.

The historical record shows that the plague of invasive species wreaking ecological and economic havoc in the Great Lakes was a largely preventable problem. This ecological train wreck wasn’t avoided because federal agencies in the U.S. and Canada repeatedly ignored the threat that ocean freighters’ ballast water discharges posed to the lakes until it was too late.

The results have been devastating. The 57 invaders that ocean freighters dumped in the Great Lakes over the past five decades now cause between $200 million and $400 million damage annually. Two of the worst invaders, zebra and quagga mussels, are causing the most profound ecological changes in the Great in recorded history.

Now the lakes face a major new threat in the form of Asian carp. The massive fish, which can grow to 100 pounds, could take a huge bite out of a food chain that sustains the Great Lakes $7 billion per year fishery.

One species of Asian carp, the silver carp, rockets out of the water when agitated by boat motors. The fish pose potentially lethal threats to boaters and would create unprecedented challenges for the Great Lakes’ $11 billion recreational boating economy.

Asian carp jumping | Photo: Jason Lindsey

Asian carp jumping | Photo: Jason Lindsey

To allow beastly Asian carp to infest the Great Lakes, for the sake of a much less valuable shipping trade in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, makes no sense.

Then again, it made no sense for the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards to ignore repeated studies that showed ocean freighters were importing zebra mussels and dozens of other foreign species into the Great Lakes in ballast water tanks.

The U.S. and Canada refused to crack down on those ballast water discharges until 2006 — 25 years after the problem was documented — because government agencies put the shipping industry’s interests above the health of Great Lakes ecosystems and the numerous services the lakes provide.

Government agencies face a similar choice today: Protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp by closing locks in the Chicago canal, or bow to a marginal shipping trade and keep the locks open.

The moment is at hand when government officials charged with protecting the Great Lakes must decide whether to heed the lessons of history or repeat the appalling mistakes of the past.

Asian carp: the time for half measures is past

December 8, 2009

As usual with this monster fish, the news out of this weekend is mixed.

The good: After days of electroshocking and fishing in the Calumet Sag Channel (that’s past the electric fence and only a few miles from Lake Michigan), nobody’s found an Asian or silver carp. And only one Asian carp was found in the stretch of the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal that was poisoned (where the fence is between the carp and Lake Michigan).

The bad: The government agencies pretty much admit that there probably are Asian carp in the Cal Sag channel because there were so many positive DNA hits in that stretch of the canal system.

Lockport Lock on Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal | Photo: IL EPA

Lockport Lock on Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal | Photo: Illinois EPA

The ugly: Right now there’s an open path from the Asian carp DNA in the channel directly to Lake Michigan. The only possible remaining barrier is navigation locks … which remain open.

The baffling: Why are the navigation locks still open? What are the agencies – in this case, the Army Corps of Engineers – waiting for? As long as the Corps doesn’t close the locks, the Great Lakes have no remaining protection from whatever Asian carp are in the Cal Sag channel. Are the agencies betting that the there are no live fish where the DNA tests say they are? If so, they’re betting against the judgment of their own scientists, who believe that the tests indicate the presence of live fish. That’s a bad bet and the Great Lakes will be the loser.

The state of Michigan has announced it will file legal action to close the navigational locks and NWF (see those announcements at and several other Great Lakes organizations also are looking at litigation.  I sure hope that’s not necessary.

Stay tuned; this picture is sure to change, and change rapidly.

Wednesday’s carp update

December 3, 2009

There’s lots going on today:

Michigan’s Governor sent a letter  to the Michigan attorney general asking that he begin legal action to shut the locks and then construct a permanent barrier between the Chicago canals and Lake Michigan to keep Asian carp from spreading to the lakes. We sent a letter in support of that legal action.

The Michigan Attorney General immediately responded and said he’s considering legal action and he’s contacted the federal and Illinois agencies to demand action.

Sterilizing portions of the canals begins today. The Illinois DNR will add rotenone, a fish poison, to the Chicago Sanitary Ship Canal this evening to make sure there are no carp there when they shut down the electric fence that is supposed to repel the carp. The DNR will poison the DNA hotspots in the Cal Sag Channel, beyond the barrier, to see if carp are also present there. See the DNR’s news release (pdf).

This is a good step, but not enough: the locks should be closed right away and kept closed until there is no danger of the carp getting to Lake Michigan.