Archive for February, 2010

Successful Great Lakes Day and Carp Hearing on the Hill

February 26, 2010

I’m just back from a full week in Washington, D.C., where the Healing Our Waters Coalition and the Great Lakes Commission held an awesomely successful Great Lakes Day. Over 200 leaders descended on the Capitol, visiting over 85 House and Senate offices and talking to key members of the Administration.

Great Lakes director Cam Davis keynoted the HOW and GLC conference, and the groups gave special recognition awards to Senator George Voinovich and Congressman Vern Ehlers. For more details on this event, check out Jeff Alexander’s post on the Healing Our Waters blog.

I also had the chance to testify yesterday before Senator Stabenow’s subcommittee on Asian carp and the government’s plans to combat a Great Lakes Asian carp invasion. You can read my full testimony here. There were eight of us on two panels, a wide variety of witnesses from federal agencies, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Dr. John Taylor (who authored the best study to date on the real costs of lock closure), Michigan Office of Great Lakes Director Ken DeBeaussaert, and Illinois DNR Director Mark Miller. I saw some real progress at the hearing. Almost all the witnesses, including Illinois’ Mark Miller, favored ecological separation as a permanent solution and wanted to get there as soon as possible. The witnesses also all recognized that there is no short-term emergency measure that can completely safeguard the lakes and so all the measures need to be used together. There was disagreement over the frequency and scale of some of the measures (particularly lock closures), but there was more emphasis on where there was consensus for moving forward.

The big development that helped bring everyone together was the Great Lakes Commission’s adoption of a resolution endorsing the concept of ecological separation as the best way of protecting the Great Lakes from Asian carp. This was so important because it included support from Illinois; it really made all the Senators sit up and take notice.

The next milestone (at least, the next one we can anticipate) is the Corps’ release of a modified lock operations plan, due out in the next week or two. Here’s hoping that the new plan is a channel by channel, lock by lock strategy on how to stop the movement of the invasive carp in the short run, and not another concept document.


The Asian Carp Public Meetings

February 19, 2010

Over the past week, I was able to attend the two public meetings on the agencies’ Asian carp strategy “framework,” one in Chicago and one in Ypsilanti, MI. You’d think they’d be very different, with an overwhelming resistance to changing any navigation in Chicago and a universal call for lock closure and separation in Ypsi, but actually both had a good diversity of views. I’m sure it helped that the Chicago boating community (particularly the passenger and tourist boats) chartered a bus and went to the Ypsi hearings. In fact, the radio reports about the Ypsi hearings said the Chicago boaters dominated, but really it was pretty even (the Chicago folks sounded louder because they all spoke early in the meeting).

So here are my takeaways from these meetings:

  • The Chicago shipping and passenger boating industry was united in opposition to any temporary or permanent closure of the locks, believing it would immediately put them out of business. Most seem to oppose permanent hydrological separation of the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan basins, but that appeared to be based on the assumption that such separation would mean lock closure. The Chicago industry folks also said they were all committed to keeping Asian carp out of Lake Michigan. Some said the threat wasn’t so great because they questioned the eDNA evidence, but most said they would support other measures. Many pointed out that lock closure wouldn’t stop Asian carp because the locks leak and they don’t cover 2 of the 5 outlets to Lake Michigan.
  • Largely because of the focus by the Chicago boating and shipping industry, the meetings emphasized lock closure way too much. There wasn’t enough discussion of the larger plan for short-term measures or how lock closure or modification might fit into that strategy. What was lost was the concept that no single measure is effective by itself. The electric fence is certainly not 100 percent effective. Nor is poisoning, or electrofishing, or commercial fishing, or lock closure. The real issue is how to put all those measures together to minimize movement of Asian carp to Lake Michigan.
  • The focus on lock closure also led to confusion about the long-term goal of ecological separation – that is, stopping the movement of live organisms between the Mississippi River system and Lake Michigan. Many of the Chicago industry folks equated such separation with lock closure, when there are many other options. You can separate the systems at other points in the canal system that would leave all the locks open (and could actually enhance passenger boat traffic and tourism). That’s what the Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to be exploring in their Interbasin Feasibility Study.
  • The Corps is the key decisionmaker here, and I’m not sure they’re equipped to make good decisions. All the other agencies have roles in the Asian carp task force, but when it comes to long-term separation, canal modification, and lock modification and/or closure, it’s up to the Corps. In Ypsilanti, the Corp’s chief, Assistant Secretary to the Army Jo Ellen Darcy, repeatedly said the Corps would “balance all interests” in making its decision. “Balancing” is not a good standard for an agency whose historic mission is navigation and whose record overwhelmingly favors commerce over ecological protection. The Corps needs a new mission: in order to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp, stop the movement of live organisms between Mississippi River system and Lake Michigan. That should be their priority.
  • I thought these meetings had a silver lining. As united and passionate as the Chicago shipping and boating community was against lock closure or changes in operations, they were respectful and polite to speakers who disagreed with them. That’s very promising. I’ve been at meetings before where a group of speakers were worried they’d lose their jobs, and usually the hostility to speakers with other points of view is palpable. Maybe because the Chicago industry really does seem committed to stopping the advance of Asian carp, that hostility was absent, and they sometimes even applauded folks who disagreed with them.

What this tells me is that there’s still hope for the Great Lakes community to move forward together on stopping Asian carp. Despite differences in approach and strategy, protecting the Great Lakes is a goal that continues to unite us all. From a purely technical standpoint, stopping the invasive carp is a really tough problem. We’ll need that unity if we hope to succeed.

The new Asian carp strategy

February 12, 2010

Today (February 12) my colleagues and I will be doing a lot of talking about Asian carp, first at a news conference and then at a public meeting in the federal courthouse in Chicago. Here is a preview of what we will be saying.

The occasion? Earlier this week the feds released a new plan, called the Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework (not a strategy, but the framework of a strategy??), and they’ve asked for comments.  I’ve copied what I’m saying at the news conference and the meeting below.

Here are my talking points on the new strategy / “framework:”

The Framework certainly represents progress, but it has major gaps that undermine its effectiveness.

The positive aspects of the Framework include:

  • The Framework and the Corps have done a good job addressing one of the central risks to stopping the establishment of carp breeding populations: flooding. The plan to erect barriers between the DesPlaines River and the Chicago canals is essential.
  • Expanded eDNA monitoring and equally important, enhanced capacity to analyze eDNA samples, are improvements.
  • Most importantly, the Framework includes all the measures needed for Asian Carp control: poisoning, electrofishing, and temporary lock closures. This is the first time that closures of the O’Brien, Chicago River, and Wilmette Locks have been included as action measures in a federal plan.
  • There clearly is a sense of urgency reflected in the document.

But the Framework has some major gaps that make us question its effectiveness in protecting the Great Lakes from Asian carp:

  • There is not enough detail on how or when the short term measures will be used together to impede the movement of Asian carp. These measures have to be used in sequence at specific locations over specific time frames to be effective. That information is not in the Framework, and until we see it, we cannot tell whether the Framework will work even in the short term. The Framework now is like a list of ingredients without a recipe. Unless you combine the ingredients in the right proportions and sequence, you’ll have a disastrous meal. We can’t afford that. What we need is a true contingency plan that has triggers and timelines and combines and sequences the use of all of these measures. We need the Framework to combine the ingredients into a recipe.
  • Although the short-term actions are expensive, difficult to implement, and not 100 percent effective, the Framework proposes no long term solution – only a study of long term solutions, and a study that takes years to complete. Ecological separation of the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan is the clear long-term solution but the Framework never commits to ecological separation, it only commits that the Army Corps of Engineers will study it. Without a long-term solution, the short term measures are like a bridge to nowhere.
  • The agencies are taking too long to put this together. The agencies have had 3 months to develop contingency plans with triggers and timetables and a path to a long term solution. After all that time, what we get is this incomplete Framework, and promise of more details later. We look forward to seeing those details and securing that critical commitment. We just hope it won’t be too late.

Following the money

February 9, 2010

Yes, yesterday was the day of the White House carp summit with the governors, and the feds also released their big Asian carp response plan.

But right now I’d like to squeeze in a little non-Asian carp news on the Administration’s Great Lakes budget. The President proposed $300 million for FY 2011, which you can look at as either a $175 million cut from last year or the second largest Great Lakes budget allocation in history.

The Healing Our Water’s Coalition response is posted below. Of course, later this week look for a return to the carp issue.

Coalition Urges Congress to Restore Funding for Great Lakes

ANN ARBOR, MICH. (Feb. 3, 2010)—The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition today urged Congress to restore funding for Great Lakes restoration, following the release of President Obama’s budget on Monday. The president’s budget includes $300 million for his Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a 36 percent reduction from the $475 million he requested in his inaugural budget.

“Although President Obama’s budget makes Great Lakes restoration a priority, the proposed funding will make it difficult to keep pace with the urgent threats facing the Lakes,” said Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “We’re going to work with Congress and the White House to restore funding to Great Lakes programs before the problems get worse and the solutions get more costly.”

President Obama proposed in his inaugural budget a new, precedent-setting $475 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that helped jump-start long-stalled federal action to restore the Lakes, the largest freshwater resource in the world.

The Administration started strong; it needs to stay strong,” said Andy Buchsbaum, co-chair of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition and regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “After years of federal inaction, there is a huge need to fund solutions that advance Great Lakes restoration and economic recovery. We look forward to working with the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress to make that happen.”

More hope in stopping Asian carp

February 5, 2010

After months of unremitting bad news, for the second week in a row we saw signs of progress in addressing the Asian carp disaster. This week is marked by a return to rational discussion of Asian carp problems and solutions. Three developments offer hope that the White House carp summit next week may produce real results:

  1. The federal and state agencies now known as the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee (they used to be the Rapid Response Team) this week came out with a seven-page document providing a conceptual outline of possible integrated emergency response measures to stop further movement of the carp. What’s significant is that this document is both comprehensive  (it includes multiple actions, including temporary lock closures) and integrated (it describes how multiple measures can be deployed together and in sequence to stop further movement of the invasive carp). This is not a final plan, but it’s a huge step in the right direction. Of course, we still have to see which of the scenarios they actually choose…
  2. The agencies will release a more detailed plan of action this Monday, February 8, just in advance of the Asian carp White House summit. We have hopes that the plan will follow and expand on the conceptual plan published this week by the agencies.
  3. Some real economists have finally weighed in on the actual costs of closing the Chicago navigational locks. As part Michigan’s supplemental filing with the U.S. Supreme Court this week (yes, Michigan has filed a supplemental motion re-petitioning for emergency lock closure as a result of the eDNA evidence of Asian carp in Calumet Harbor),  it submitted a study by Dr. John Roach and James Taylor on the costs of shutting the O’Brien and Chicago locks to barge traffic. You might recall that the Corps and the shipping industry claimed that the economies of Chicago and the region would be devastated even by a short term closure, that Chicago could not handle the additional truck and rail traffic that would result, that jobs would be lost, and that it would cost the region over $190 million annually. The Roach and Taylor study demolishes the Corps’ claims with real economic analysis. Their conclusions include:

“a. Only approximately seven million tons of cargo per year would be affected and some of this would incur relatively minor inconvenience .

b. That affected volume represents less than one percent of all the freight traffic in the Chicago Region and only thirty percent of the total Port of Chicago traffic.

c. The affected barge traffic is the equivalent of two daily loaded rail unit trains in a region that has approximately 500 daily freight trains.

d.Truck traffic in Chicago would increase less than 1/10 of one percent.

e. Most of the affected cargo would continue to move on the inland waterway system, through the Lockport Locks, but would have to stop a few miles short of its former destination.

i. Transportation and handling costs would increase by less than $70 million annually in a Chicago metropolitan area economy of $521 billion.

j. There would be more cargo-related jobs, not less, associated with closures at the O’Brien and Chicago Locks. There likely would be some loss of barge jobs, but these would be more than replaced by truck, rail, and pipeline jobs needed for transload and transfer movements of the affected cargo. That is why there would be additional transportation costs.

o. In sum, waterway closure at the Chicago and O’Brien Locks would have a localized impact on already declining commercial cargo traffic that comprises only a tiny fraction of economic activity in the metropolitan Chicago area. The conservatively estimated additional transportation and logistical costs of shifting a portion of the existing barge traffic to other modes of transportation along a small portion of its route is far less than that suggested by the Corps and Illinois, and is orders of magnitude less than the estimated economic impact of sport and commercial fishing in the Great Lakes.

p. The claim that “even a temporary closure of the locks will devastate the local economy and Illinois’ role in the regional,national and global economy…” (Ill. Opposition p. 10 and Ill. App.50a) cannot reasonably be supported.”

Understanding the real costs of each of the options, including temporary lock closures, means there can be less posturing and more problem-solving at the summit. That’s essential for the health of the Great Lakes.