A little progress…

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.

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