Archive for January, 2010

A little progress…

January 29, 2010

For the first time in months, a week has gone by without any bad news on Asian carp. OK, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of government action, but it sure beats the weekly, and sometimes daily, diet of bad news we’ve seen since November.

And there has been some positive movement. The Administration set a date, February 8, for a White House summit on Asian carp. Although the summit involves only the Administration and the governors, the White House is making further plans for a much broader public meeting that will involve many stakeholders. There are no guarantees about either process, but they offer another path (in addition to litigation) for confronting the carp, and we need every possible option on the table.

The agencies this week also seem to have made some progress. First, they’ve stopped debating whether Asian carp are present where the eDNA says they are. The agencies now acknowledge that the odds are very high that the carp are present at the positive eDNA sampling locations. This admission is important because it means they recognize the problem, and as any 12-step program will tell you, that’s the first step toward recovery.

The agencies also are stepping up their efforts to characterize the Chicago canal and river system through additional monitoring via eDNA sampling, netting, and electroshocking, another important step in determining how bad the problem is and where the best places are to attack it.

Most significantly, the agency scientists believe that the Asian and silver carp currently in the Chicago waterway system will not be able to reproduce while in that system because they need far longer uninterrupted stretches of water than the canals can provide. Other scientists I’ve talked to have said the same thing. That’s critically important because it means that even with a few carp in the canals beyond the electric fence, we still have time to stop the advance of the monster carp before they achieve breeding populations in Lake Michigan.

My concern is that progress is slow and the invasive carp are not — they leap over, through and beyond the incremental measures we take. Addressing a crisis is different than tackling many of the slower-moving problems we face in the Great Lakes. Cleaning up a toxic hotspot can take decades; building a new sewer system takes years. The Asian carp problem is more like the outbreak of epidemic: we have weeks, and maybe days, to develop a plan and implement it.

So these small measures of good news do nothing to ease the urgency for action. Most importantly, the agencies must find a way to get ahead of the carp. Almost all the emergency actions taken to date have been reactive: carp eDNA show up somewhere new, and the agencies scramble to respond.  That process has created confusion and mistrust. The agencies need to think ahead. They need a contingency plan that defines the triggers for action and then the actions that will be taken if those triggers occur. The agencies have informed us they are working on that plan…. but that plan should have been in place at least two months ago, if not earlier.

And yes, the contingency plan should consider all actions, including closing the navigational locks. It’s inconceivable to me that the lock closure option has never really been explored. To my knowledge (and I’ve asked repeatedly), nobody in government has even looked at transportation alternatives to the canals in moving cargo from Lake Michigan into Chicago, what the extra costs of those alternatives might be, and how those costs could be defrayed. Call me crazy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that federal money could be available to help fund those alternatives. Has anybody even checked?

So let’s look back on this week with relief and a little hope. But lets look forward with the same urgency and determination that’s we’ve needed since the monster carp crisis began.


Each Day, a New Wrinkle

January 23, 2010

It seems like every day this week brought a new wrinkle to the efforts to stop monster Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes. Here’s a partial rundown:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court denied Michigan’s request for an emergency order to close the locks in the Chicago sewer system to stop bighead and silver carp from entering Lake Michigan. But the Court has not yet ruled on Michigan’s request for a long-term solution, the permanent hydrologic separation of Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River system.
  • The same day, we learned from the Army Corps of Engineers that new eDNA samples indicated that the invasive carp had gotten farther than anybody thought: past the O’Brien Lock, and even into Calumet Harbor, a bay in Lake Michigan itself.
  • The White House’s top environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley, announced a “carp summit” would be held in the next few weeks. Midwest governors will be invited, but we don’t know about anybody else. The summit won’t accomplish much if it doesn’t include key Great Lakes stakeholders, so I hope they (we) are included.
  • A bipartisan group of members of Congress introduced bills in the U.S. House and Senate to require the federal government to close the locks and block the Chicago canals immediately to stop the carp from advancing any further. Rep. Camp (R-MI) led the charge in the House with H.R. 4472, imaginatively titled the “CLOSE ALL ROUTES and PREVENT ASIAN CARP TODAY” Act and also know as the CARP Act. Senator Stabenow introduced something similar in the Senate.

Taken together, I think these developments lead to three conclusions:

First, the debate over whether the invasive carp are where the eDNA says they are is virtually over. If a DNA test is positive, then a live carp was there shortly before the DNA sample was taken. How do we know that? Because the scientists say that eDNA samples degrade after 48 hours and they probably come from the stomach contents of live carp. That means a live carp was likely swimming in the area the DNA was found within 48 hours of the taking of the sample. So dumping of dead fish or parts of dead fish, or the discharge of ballast water containing carp residue, is highly unlikely to produce those results. On this point scientists from all sides of the legal debate are pretty much in agreement.

Second, the question now moves on to whether there are reproducible populations of bighead and silver carp in the Chicago canals and the Great Lakes, and if not, when such populations might arrive. Here again, scientists from across the board are largely in agreement that the populations of carp in the canals and the lake aren’t yet at reproducible levels; the inability to find live fish indicate the population densities must be very low. But the scientists don’t know when such high levels might be reached. So that’s where the uncertainty lies over the risk the carp pose and the solutions we should pursue.

Third and finally, I think our best hope for getting action quickly at this point is the White House Summit. I’m not suggesting backing off from the litigation or legislative options, but the White House Summit now is likely to get results faster. President Obama and his top advisors are from Chicago; they know the players; and they are committed to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes (notwithstanding some of the statements the Solicitor General made in the brief before the Supreme Court). With their guidance and the full participation of all the important stakeholders, the Summit could craft a response that is rapid and effective. What we don’t know is whether the Summit will include the right players. Of course the states are essential participants, but so are key cities (like Chicago), the sewer district, environmental organizations, and business interests. Truly effective action will need to include all the stakeholders.

Stay tuned for what’s likely to another roller coaster ride next week….

Today’s score: Carp 2, Great Lakes 0

January 19, 2010

I returned from China today after an amazing trip (more about that in a later post), and arrive to find that Asian carp continue to beat up the Great Lakes.

Today’s news is a double whammy: the Supreme Court denied Michigan’s request for an emergency closure of the locks, and the Army Corps of Engineers released new eDNA data suggesting that the monster carp are already in Lake Michigan. We’re all trying to sort through this now.

In the meantime, below is today’s news release from the environmental organizations trying to stop this invasion:

For Immediate Release
Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010

Immediate Action Critical to Stop Carp Invasion
Illinois Diversion Question Still on the Table

The Supreme Court’s ruling today denying Michigan’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have forced emergency measures to keep the invading Asian carp out of Lake Michigan puts the onus for stopping an invasion squarely on the federal government, which had strongly resisted Michigan’s request.

At the same time, the nation’s highest court did not yet act on Michigan’s request to reopen a nearly century-old case allowing Chicago to divert its wastewater from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. The court provided no comment in its ruling.

The ruling comes as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is poised to announce at a 1:30 p.m. (CST) press conference the discovery of Asian carp in Lake Michigan, according to press accounts.

The artificial connection in Illinois creates an aquatic superhighway for the jumbo-sized Asian carp and other invasive species to travel between the Lake Michigan and Mississippi watersheds, and has now led the potentially devastating fish to the doorstep of Lake Michigan.


Next post from… China

January 11, 2010

Talk about ironic. As we wait to see what the Supreme Court will do about the threat of invasive Asian carp entering the Great Lakes, I’m on my way to talk about the Great Lakes at a conference in Nanjing, China.  The conference, put on by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environmental Forum, is about Lake Tai, China’s third largest lake, and how to address its pollution problems. I’ll be talking about the Great Lakes as a success story, highlighting the enactment of the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Water Resources Compact and the development and funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. And of course, I’ll also be talking about invasive species – one in particular. I’ll try to avoid causing an international incident.

Before I begin posting about Lake Tai next week, today I wanted to return to the Asian carp problem here in the U.S. and our government’s response to it. As the legal briefs fly and the rhetoric heats up, I think it’s important to remember that every government agency involved in this process cares deeply about the Great Lakes and is exerting enormous efforts to keep the invasive carp out of the Great Lakes. We may disagree with their strategy or methods, but folks in the Obama Administration and the Illinois DNR have been pulling all-nighters through the holidays to try to get a handle on how to protect the lakes from the carp and we need to recognize that.

And we can’t lose sight of the fact that this Administration has already, in its first year, done more for the Great Lakes than any other in history, that President Obama is truly our first Great Lakes president, and that we’re in agreement with the Administration on virtually every other Great Lakes issue.

So let’s not fall into the trap of demonizing people we might disagree with, particularly here, where there are good people in Illinois and the federal agencies who are working very hard to address a really tough problem. Yes, I and others think that the evidence of the presence of carp in the Chicago canal system creates enormous risks to the Great Lakes and compels certain emergency and permanent actions – the temporary closing of the navigation locks and long-term separation of Lake Michigan from Mississippi River basin. And yes, the Administration and Illinois thus far have been unwilling to take those measures, and we support Michigan’s efforts in the Supreme Court to compel them to do so. We will continue to be clear about that. But this is a disagreement among friends who share common goals and we should act that way. The fact remains that this threat is likely to be resolved more quickly and completely through collaboration than conflict. So dialing down the rhetoric, keeping communication channels open, and maintaining strong relationships is more important now than ever.

On to China. I’ll see if I can a good bighead or silver carp recipe…

Tune in this morning

January 7, 2010

I’ll be on the radio this morning with the Michigan Attorney General. 

Tune in to WDET 101.9fm at 10:30 am to the Craig Fahle Show, or listen to the broadcast live online.

Big disappointment from Obama administration

January 7, 2010

Big (disappointing) news.  The Obama administration weighed in on the wrong side of the Asian carp issue.

See our press release:

Alliance for the Great Lakes – Great Lakes United – Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition – National Wildlife Federation – Natural Resources Defense Council – Sierra Club

Administration Misses Opportunity to Protect Great Lakes from Asian Carp Threat

ANN ARBOR, MICH. (January 6)—The Obama Administration yesterday opposed taking emergency measures to protect the Great Lakes from the threat of Asian carp— including the temporary closure of two Chicago locks —siding with defendants in a court case that will be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday.

The administration’s action is in response to a lawsuit brought in December by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox—and since supported by the attorneys general in Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Ontario. The lawsuit calls for measures to separate Lake Michigan from Asian-carp infested rivers and canals, including an emergency and temporary closure of two Chicago navigational locks that are the last barrier preventing the invasive fish from entering Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes. The emergency measures would buy time to develop a permanent solution to the problem.

DNA evidence taken by University of Notre Dame researchers suggest that the invasive Asian carp – specifically the silver and bighead carp species – have breached an electric fence in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and are within 6 miles of Lake Michigan.

Bighead and silver carp are large filter-feeders that out-compete native fish for food and habitat. Individuals can weigh up to 110 pounds for bighead carp and 60 pounds for silver carp. Boaters have been injured by silver carp because the fish is easily startled and hurls itself out of the water and into or over boats in response to boat motors.

Conservation groups criticized the Obama Administration’s actions:

“By aiming for the status quo, these filings miss the real target,” said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “Five states have spoken loudly and clearly that the connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi has already become a liability. Separating these systems is the only pathway to protection.”

“The Obama Administration has miscalculated the threat Asian carp pose to the Great Lakes,” said Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “Without immediate action, an invasion of Asian carp will unravel many of the President’s Great Lakes initiatives. Regardless of what happens in the Supreme Court, the Obama administration needs to do the right thing.”

“The Asian carp pose an immediate, very significant threat to the entire Great Lakes region, and we have a limited window of time in which to act to prevent their entry into the Lakes,” said Emily Green, director of the Sierra Club’s Great Lakes Program. “We are counting on the Obama Administration to take the lead in addressing this threat and to take all actions necessary to prevent the carp from entering the Great Lakes, including an emergency closure of the locks. The stakes are too high for anything less.”

“Illinois and the federal government are walking away from a huge opportunity to fix real problems in the region, and instead favor the easier embrace of the status quo,” said Henry Henderson, director of the Midwest program for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  “Asian carp are now knocking on the door of the Great Lakes precisely because the state and federal agencies in charge have responded slowly and ineffectively. They cannot now argue that they have this problem under control when they are the ones who allowed this emergency to develop in the first place. Whether they like it or not, the State of Illinois and Army Corps of Engineers are on the hook with responsibility to protect the Great Lakes.”

“DNA says that least a few carp have breached our only line of defense,” said Jennifer Nalbone, director of invasive species and navigation for Great Lakes United. “If DNA evidence is good enough to put criminals in jail, DNA evidence should be good enough to pull out all the stops to protect the Great Lakes and close those locks.”

“The Obama Administration has made Great Lakes restoration a top priority, which is why we are disappointed that it has chosen not to pursue closing the locks to protect the Lakes from the Asian carp,” said Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “Failure to confront the threat of the Asian carp threatens to undermine the progress the nation is making to restore the Great Lakes and revive the economy.”

For Immediate Release:
January 6, 2010

Joel Brammeier, Alliance for the Great Lakes, 773-590-6494
Andy Buchsbaum, National Wildlife Federation, 734-887-7100
Emily Green, Sierra Club Great Lakes Program, 608-695-4994
Josh Mogerman, Natural Resources Defense Council, 312-651-7909
Jennifer Nalbone, Great Lakes United, 716-213-0408
Jeff Skelding, Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, 202-797-6893