Archive for May, 2010

Real progress on carp!

May 25, 2010

It’s nice to be able to report good news on this topic, and this news is big.

Remember how many times I’ve emphasized that we must implement a permanent solution to stopping the Asian carp invasion?  Well, the only way to guarantee that carp would not move through the canals into Lake Michigan is to create a physical barrier between the Mississippi River system and the Great Lakes – hydrological separation. And in order to create that physical barrier the Army Corps of Engineers must first complete a feasibility study. But the law directing them to do the study was vague, and by all reports the Corps is not intending to take a hard look at hydrological separation.

Today the Great Lakes Congressional delegation took a big step toward hydrological separation. Led by senators from Michigan, Ohio and Illinois — yes, Illinois, too — the Great Lakes Congressional Task Force sent a letter to their Senate colleagues calling for legislation to direct the Corps to do a study of hydrological separation. Now, this is a study, not an order for action, but it’s an essential step and it’s the right step. Illinois Senator Durbin has really stepped up here, joining Michigan’s Senators Levin and Stabenow and Ohio’s Senator Voinovich in leading this Great Lakes protection effort. You can read the environmental community’s positive reaction to the letter.

Senators Durbin, Levin, Stabenow, and Voinoich, and the other 9 Senators who also signed the letter, recognize that hyrdological separation is not only essential for saving the Great Lakes ecosystem, but if done right can be of great benefit to improving Chicago’s transportation system, lowering transportation costs for businesses in Chicago and throughout the region, better cleaning Chicago’s wastewater, and bringing federal investment and jobs into the city. In other words, hydrological separation can be a win for the Great Lakes, the city of Chicago, and the entire region.

Congress should act quickly on the recommendations in the letter. Of course, the Corps doesn’t have to wait for Congress to authorize a new study. It should take the hint from these Senators and get started on a hydro sep study right away.

I hope this regional unity on this study is the beginning of a trend. The Great Lakes community is an incredible political force when we’re unified; just look at our successes the past two years on Great Lakes restoration funding and the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact. Now facing one of the most serious threats to the lakes in decades, we need that unity more than ever. Our Great Lakes senators are moving us in that direction, and just in time.

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Is this the Asian carp action plan we’ve been waiting for?

May 13, 2010

Last week, the federal and state and federal agencies constituting the Asian carp task force released what looked like an action plan to attack Asian carp.

The agencies’ plan is to take lethal measures to kill Asian carp wherever eDNA testing indicates those carp are present – most recently, near the O’Brien Lock and Dam and in the North Shore Channel. They will use rotenone to poison the fish in a two-mile stretch near the O’Brien section, and they will use electroshocking and netting to kill the fish in a narrow section of the North Shore Channel. In both locations, they will close the locks for several days to increase the efficiency of the response actions.

Attacking the Asian carp wherever the evidence says they are present sounds like progress to me. It sounds like the kind of action plan we asked for three months ago.

It is also a positive sign that the agencies are acknowledging by their actions that DNA evidence is a good indicator of where carp are. The agencies are using the DNA hits to determine where to attack the carp.

But while these specific measures are good ones, it is now unclear whether these actions actually part of a comprehensive plan.

Unfortunately, the agencies’ press release (pdf) makes what they are proposing sound like more monitoring and not like a new response plan. And after a conversation with agency staff, it’s clear to me that their plan is being spun as monitoring: the agencies are planning on poisoning fish to see if Asian carp are present, not killing fish because the evidence already indicates that Asian carp are present.

And that difference is important; it will make a real difference on the ground. If agencies’ activities are just monitoring, then there is no way of knowing whether new evidence of Asian carp will trigger a killing response or some form of monitoring that isn’t lethal to carp.

So if this is the agencies’ new action plan, they should tell us. And if this is not their action plan, then they should come up with one fast. It’s been over six months and the Asian carp continue to move faster than the government.

Supreme Court decision on Asian carp: the ball is in our court now

May 4, 2010

Pardon the length of this post, but I haven’t blogged in awhile, and this one is a bit complicated. Prominent in the news last week was the Supreme Court’s dismissal of Michigan’s petition to end the Chicago diversion and restore the natural divide between the Mississippi River system and Lake Michigan. After earlier refusing to hear two emergency motions to order short-term actions to stop the carp, the Court refused to reopen its consent decree that governs the Chicago diversion — which means the Court has declined to participate in any way on the Asian carp issue. That’s certainly disappointing, but at least in my mind, it does not have to be devastating.

Here’s why.

The only way to make sure Asian carp don’t enter Lake Michigan is to create a permanent barrier in the Chicago waterway system that stops live organisms from traveling through the canals (otherwise known as “ecological separation”). And the only entity that can build that barrier is the Army Corps of Engineers. To build such a barrier, the Corps would need to do studies on where and how the barrier could be built so as to maximize ecological protection while simultaneously creating economic growth (or at least minimizing economic harm). And then Congress would need to authorize the Corps to do the work and provide significant funding for construction.

Now, all this can happen without intervention by the Supreme Court. The Corps can do its study in a timely way (say, in 12-18 months), Congress can adopt the recommendations and fund them, and the Corps can then undertake construction. The problem is that the Corps is dragging its feet on the study and our Congressional delegation is divided as to what it would like the Corps to do. We heard last week that the Corps thinks it cannot finish its study by the end of 2012. And Congress isn’t likely to provide clear direction because there have been divisions between the Illinois delegation and most of the other Great Lakes states over the issue of ecological separation; without a unified front from the Great Lakes, Congress is unlikely to provide billions of dollars to fix a problem primarily associated with the Great Lakes.

Until the Supreme Court decision last week there were two strategies to getting the Corps to act quickly to complete the right kind of study and then for Congress to fund it.

The first strategy was (and is) to build consensus: to work with members of Congress, the states, the cities, the business community, scientists, and environmental organizations to find a method to do ecological separation that closes this canal system to invasive species while improving transportation and the Chicago and regional economies. This strategy brings people together to find a win-win outcome; it builds a consensus that the Corps would have every reason to adopt. We are already seeing signs that such a consensus is possible: the adoption of resolutions endorsing ecological separation by the Great Lakes Commission and its chair, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, was an excellent development. But that strategy takes time, and the Corps so far has been resistant to changing the slow, ineffective path on which it currently treads.

The second strategy was the opposite of consensus – the litigation option. Over the opposition of Illinois and some Chicago stakeholders, the Court could just order the Corps to do a study to determine the best ecological separation option and then implement it. Such an order would have been helpful in the following respects: it could have made sure the Corps did the right study (on how, and not whether, to do ecological separation); it could have forced the Corps to do the study quickly; and it could have established a special master to push the Corps to implement the study. But even under the best case scenario, the Court’s order could not have forced the government to stop the carp. The Court could not order Congress to provide funding, and without funding, there’s no construction for ecological separation. So even if we had the best decision from the Court, we’d need major action from Congress to protect the Great Lakes.

And that’s where the lawsuit created a bit of a paradox. A successful lawsuit could move the Corps along much more quickly…. but it also made action by Congress more unlikely. The lawsuit deepened and exacerbated the conflict between Illinois and other states, particularly Michigan, and their Congressional delegations. That conflict has made it extremely difficult for Congress as a whole to act. So while the lawsuit would have been really helpful in getting the Corps to do a good study quickly, it could have made doing the construction needed for ecological separation more difficult.

The dismissal of the lawsuit is a mixed bag. On the one hand, no lawsuit means a chance for the first strategy to work: to find widespread agreement around a win-win scenario for ecological separation. That agreement can be a force for funding and construction of ecological separation in ways that a Court order could not. On the other hand, it means that there’s no clear way to hold the Corps accountable – to conduct the right kind of study, and to conduct it quickly. It means that the first strategy becomes the only strategy. If we can’t build consensus and build it quickly, then the Corps will continue plodding along, often in the wrong direction, and the Great Lakes will be in real trouble.

That means the ball’s in our court now: we in the region, and not the Supreme Court, will decide the fate of the lakes. We’ve got some work to do.