Of the White House, Asian carp, and leadership

March 14, 2012

It’s been two weeks since what I think of as “the White House meetings,” when Great Lakes advocates sat down with senior White House officials for two discussions as part of Great Lakes Days in Washington D.C. , Now that the dust has settled, I wanted to share a few thoughts.

First, the White House is COOL! It’s not amazingly ornate or solemn or beautiful; it’s a working space, a little on the small side. But when you walk in you’re hit with this sense of import and energy and focus. Huge decisions get made there by serious people, and whether you agree with them or not, it’s a pretty intoxicating place to be.

It was hard not to be intimidated sitting in the Roosevelt Room across from Administration officials during the White House meeting Monday. I’m proud to say that our merry band of activists was focused, thoughtful, and completely professional — until after the meeting ended. Then everybody started talking at once and tried to get pictures of everybody else in front of the portrait of Teddy on this horse, or FDR, or the Nobel Peace Prize (yeah, that’s hanging on the wall).

If you want a good summary of that meeting and the larger one on Wednesday in the auditorium of the Old Executive Office Building, a good place to go is Joel Brammeier’s blog.  He walks through the issues — funding, nutrients, Asian carp, invasive species, etc. — one at a time and reports on the main discussion points.

First Impression: Obama Admin. Committed to the Great Lakes

I wanted to write about two impressions I took away. First, the Obama Administration truly is committed to the Great Lakes. That commitment, of course, is reflected in the Great Lakes funding budget numbers this and previous years, and we got a pretty good idea of the political capital the Administration had to spend to keep that funding intact.

But it really came through on a personal level in those meetings. Top officials from throughout the Administration, like Commerce Secretary John Bryson not only showed up and made a few comments — they really knew the Great Lakes. I’ll never forget Pete Rouse, President Obama’s special advisor, dropping in to address 120 Great Lakes leaders Wednesday afternoon. Without notes or pause, he spoke for 15 minutes about Great Lakes problems and initiatives, including Lake Erie, Asian carp, funding…. This guy has maybe a thousand issues to keep up with every day, and he knew the Great Lakes stuff cold. That says a lot about this Administration’s priorities at the highest level.

Second Impression: Asian Carp Blind Spot

My second impression is not as positive. When it comes to Asian carp, the Administration still has a blind spot. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, it’s not exerting the kind of leadership from the top that the Lakes need. And when I say from the top, I mean someone at a level who can change the parameters of the debate and move the Army Corps of Engineers.

I don’t know if it’s an overabundance of caution, or an urge to get everybody on the same page before moving forward, but the bold leadership we need here is lacking in critical ways.

To be fair, the Administration has moved quickly and forcefully when it comes to short-term measures to keep the invasive carp out of Lake Michigan, and to the extent that there is not yet a breeding population of Asian carp in the Chicago canals or the lake, those measures have been successful, as Cam Davis pointed out at the briefing. But we know those short-term measures aren’t perfect — witness the discovery of Asian carp eDNA in the canals and at the edge of the lake and the capture of a live silver carp in Lake Calumet. We also know the risk grows every day. That’s why a permanent solution is so important.

Bold Vision Needed on Asian Carp

What’s needed is a vision for that permanent solution and a plan to get there. The conservation community has been pushing for over two years for permanent physical barriers to separate Lake Michigan from the carp-infested rivers in the Mississippi River basin, and the Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Cities Initiative have just finished a study showing how and where such barriers could be built. The reaction from the Administration? No commitments, they say; let’s wait until 2015 for the results of a study by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The White House meetings changed little of that. Pete Rouse said that the Corps would speed up its study but provided no specifics – echoing a letter from Jo Ellen Darcy to concerned U.S. Senators promising to try to accelerate the study. That’s something, but not a lot; there’s no specific date of completion or commitment to study hydrologic separation and not half-measures that won’t protect the lakes from Asian carp. (And I’d like to recognize that the staff of the Corps has been much more transparent in their study timelines and tasks, something we appreciate even if it doesn’t resolve our central concerns.) Certainly there was no bold vision for how to address the crisis.

President & Candidates Must Reframe the Debate on Asian Carp

What we need is to change the framing of the debate. With one sentence, the President could change the conversation from whether there should be permanent physical barriers built in the canals to where, when and how such barriers should be built. More than anything else, that would create the momentum we need to get to an effective permanent barrier quickly, before the carp invade the lakes.

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition has called on the President and all the candidates for the presidency in 2012 to make the commitment to hydrologically separate the Mississippi and Great Lakes basins.

The President and the Administration have exercised bold leadership on so many Great Lakes issues. It’s time they did so on this one, too.

Next post: toxic algal blooms and what we should be doing about them.

Great Lakes Votes Matter in Presidential Race

February 13, 2012

‘Tis the season…..Not that season. The political season, and more specifically, that period when, every four years, the national political parties are particularly attentive to the Midwest. In case you’ve been living deep underground, shielded from all radio waves, yes, it’s a presidential election year.

This year our states seem to be hearing less than one might expect  from the White House aspirants—Obama, Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul. But that’s about to change. Now that the Michigan Republican primary is getting closer (February 28) and the Ohio primaries is close behind (March 6), the candidates will be turning their attention to our region. Yet their interest goes far beyond the primary.

You might think that every region of the country believes it’s “special” when it comes to presidential elections; after all, everybody votes. But it turns out that some votes are more important than others. Here’s why.

What do Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all have in common? Yes, they’re Great Lakes states. But it also happens that they are expected to be presidential election swing states – states that could go to either the Republicans or the Democrats. Which means that the presidential candidates and their parties have to campaign in those states, and campaign hard, all the way through the November election.

Great Lakes Swing States

If you look at the political map, you’ll see that the Great Lakes region has the highest concentration of swing states of any region in the country. And these states are big; they hold lots of electoral votes.

Which is why people who vote in those states have more clout that people who vote in, say, California (a safe Democratic state) or Idaho (a safe Republican one). Voters in swing states like ours can swing their state one direction or the other, and maybe take the entire presidential election with them.

Here’s why swing states are so important: what people care about in those states becomes what the candidates care about. And we know two issues of great importance to those voters: Great Lakes restoration and Asian carp.

Voters Support Keeping the Great Lakes Healthy

The  Great  Lakes are not just the dominant natural feature the ties the region together; they are the basis of the region’s economy and quality of life. They are our competitive advantage. Voters recognize that and they strongly support candidates who want to keep the lakes healthy. That fact is reflected in poll after poll, in frequent editorials, and in the strong support that Great Lakes restoration receives from leaders from both parties.

Likewise, people in those states (particularly in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin) see Asian carp as a huge threat to the Great Lakes, and they want the federal government to act to stop the invasive fish. Editorials throughout those states have raised the alarm and castigated the Army Corps of Engineers for moving too slowly.  Just last week, a Michigan EPIC/MRA poll found the following:

  • 6-in-10 Michigan voters favor erecting barriers in Chicago Canals to prevent Asian Carp from entering Lake Michigan
  • More than 7-in-10 know “a lot” or “some” about Asian Carp issue
  • Nearly 3-in-4 are very concerned about Asian Carp entering Lake Michigan

Great Lakes Pledge for Presidential Candidates

The presidential candidates can’t afford to be weak on Great Lakes issues or Asian carp. To help them make a meaningful commitment, the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition has provided a special service. We’ve  drafted a Great Lakes pledge, and we’re asking each candidate to sign it. Here are the concrete commitments the candidates need to make:

“I will maintain historic funding levels and, where appropriate, increase Great Lakes restoration funding over existing levels in my annual budgets for the priorities outlined in the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and for future protections of the Great Lakes, such as fewer beach closures and sewer overflows, more clean up of toxic sediments, more restoration of wetlands, and greater prevention of new invasive species; and

“I support a permanent solution to the threat of Asian Carp and other aquatic invasive species entering the Great Lakes.   I will order the Army Corps of Engineers to take all necessary measures to construct a permanent barrier to hydrologically separate the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes basin at Chicago. Those measures include completion of a study by December 31, 2013, to determine the best means of hydrological separation; interim actions to prevent the Asian carp from establishing breeding populations in Lake Michigan until the construction of the permanent barrier is completed; the inclusion of the necessary funds for those measures in my budget proposals to Congress; and the development and implementation of a long-term financing strategy to construct and operate the permanent barrier.”

These commitments are concrete for a reason. Voters can tell that a candidate is serious if he signs the pledge. If he won’t sign, then you know he’s waffling on the Great Lakes.


Great Lakes: The Year In Review

December 15, 2011

Between Letterman and Colbert, it’s pretty daunting to put together any sort of year-end Top 10 list, especially for something as esoteric as Great Lakes policy. But an awful lot has happened this year and I thought I’d take a shot.

So without any (intentional) irony or comedy, here’s my list of the top 10 developments (good and bad) in Great Lakes policy for 2011 – plus a bonus entry at the end! And to add to the excitement, I’ve tried to put these in order of significance and concluded with a final grade for 2011. Debate on the entries, the order and the grade is welcome. (Drum roll, please):

    1. Great Lakes restoration funding: Congress came through at $300 million for FY 11 in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That’s significantly less than the baseline set by the Obama Administration in 2009, but still quite robust, especially considering the budget axes being wielded on both sides of the aisle.Great Lakes restoration funding continues to be the exception to the partisan warfare

      that has plagued this Congress, and we sure hope that continues. GLRI funding has resulted in over 900 restoration projects over the past two years with more projects in the pipeline.

    2. Algal blooms break out in Great Lakes: 2011 was the “year of the algal bloom” in the Great Lakes. Lake Erie suffered the worst toxic algal bloom in recorded history last summer. The algae extended miles along the shoreline and miles out into the water, in places over 6 inches thick. It shut down beaches and fishing and caused respiratory problems for charter boat captains trying to cross the blooms into clearer waters.Algae (some toxic) also broke out in blooms in other lakes, including Huron’s Saginaw Bay and the eastern shore of Lake Michigan up to Sleeping Bear Dunes.

      As described in NWF’s report, Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes, these blooms are caused by excessive nutrients entering the watershed and exacerbated by invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.

      So far, policy solutions have lagged far behind the problem. Although Ohio has a special task force devoted to the crisis, the state does not have the tools or the funds to stop the nutrient additions to the lake. And the best federal tool – a new Farm Bill – is months, if not years, from completion.

    3. Asian Carp Delays: This year we saw continued delays by the Army Corps of Engineers and the courts in taking action toward a permanent barrier to stop Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan. The Corps insists it can’t even finish its feasibility study until 2015.A federal appeals court, while recognizing the importance of stopping the carp from reaching the Great Lakes, refused to order the Corps to speed the study,  and thus far Congressional efforts to do the same have been stymied.Under the Corps’ schedule for completing the study, the carp are likely to colonize the lake and the Corps study will be an exercise in futility. Sampling shows that carp DNA continue to be found near the lake, indicating that at least isolated fish have swum past the electric cable designed to keep them at bay.

      Meanwhile, the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative are finalizing their own study on how to separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River and expect to release it in January – a full three years before the Corps. THAT’S how you do it!

    4. States step up on the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact: New York hit a home run and Ohio barely escaped striking out on the Great Lakes compact this year. New York passed a strong law last summerthat requires anyone withdrawing more than 100,000 gallons of water per day to get approval and apply water conservation measures.Meanwhile, Ohio’s legislature passed a terrible bill that would have allowed almost unlimited withdrawals with no oversight (the thresholds set before regulation kicked in were so high that the legislature expected no water user ever to be regulated). Although initially inclined to sign the bill, pressure from within Ohio and from other Great Lakes states convinced Governor Kasich to issue a much needed veto.

      For a more comprehensive report on how all the states are doing, check out NWF’s report, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

    5. EPA issues new draft permit for ballast discharges into Great Lakes: In November, the EPA issued the draft of a new Vessel General Permit that for the first time would require ships to install treatment technology to clean their ballast water.  That’s the good news.The bad news is that the required technology won’t consistently stop new invasions. The ships would have to meet the International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) standard, which allows ships to continue to discharge invasive organisms at low concentrations into the Great Lakes.But that’s not good enough.Unlike other pollution, invasive species organisms are pollution that reproduce – they multiply. So low concentrations initially can easily become high concentrations over time – which is exactly what happened with zebra mussels.

      Fortunately, the draft EPA rule allows states to enact tougher rules and laws, which is exactly what New York and Michigan have done. Those states’ laws – particularly New York’s, which applies to every vessel entering the Great Lakes – provide far better protections than the EPA’s proposed rule.

      Now the challenge is keeping Congress from invalidating the state laws and establishing the too-weak IMO standard as a legal ceiling – even if it’s clear that the standard doesn’t work. The House has already passed a harmful bill; it’s now up to the Senate to stop it.

    6. Michigan Governor vetoes bill that would have damaged Great Lakes protections: In November, Governor Rick Snyder vetoed his first bill ever: legislation that would have prevented Michigan agencies from issuing any rules or permits that are more restrictive than federal minimums.Without the veto, Michigan would have been unable to reissue its precedent-setting permit to restrict ballast water discharges of invasive species, or to improve its water quality standard for phosphorus, the primary cause of the lakes’ massive and growing algae blooms. The veto was a rare occasion of public disagreement between the Governor and the legislature, making it an even stronger indicator of the Governor’s commitment to the Great Lakes.
    7. Ohio Supreme Court Restores Public’s Rights to Lake Erie: The Ohio Supreme Court gave the people of Ohio a surprising legal victory on the public’s right to access and use the shoreline of Lake Erie.  Two lower court rulings had shrunk the public’s ownership of and access to the Lake Erie coast, essentially giving away this precious resource to private landowners.The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the lower court decisions, returning ownership to the public. The Court’s opinion is not without ambiguities, and the case now goes back to the lower courts for final disposition, where the parties will continue to litigate the case.
    8. EPA is issuing mercury reduction rules for power plants: EPA on December 16 is scheduled to finalize its rules for reducing mercury emissions for power plants, the leading source of mercury in the Great Lakes and inland lakes and streams. All of the Great Lakes states have statewide fish consumptions advisories warning people to restrict or avoid entirely their consumption of certain fish because of mercury contamination. The U.S. House has passed bills to attempt to roll back the EPA protections,  but those bills are unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate.Michigan Out-Of-Doors former TV host Bob Garner led a Tele-Town Hall on the mercury rule this month attended by 14,000 hunters and anglers. As Bob said, “We can’t fillet our way out” of mercury in fish.
    9. Michigan court opens the door to sulfide mining: In November, a Michigan Circuit Court allowed a highly damaging mine to go forward in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula despite overwhelming evidence that the mine would cause acid mine drainage in blue-water trout streams, had a high risk of collapsing and draining those streams, would destroy a place of tribal worship, and violated Michigan’s new mining law in dozens of significant ways.The court decision, which is being appealed, upheld a deeply flawed Michigan DEQ decision and set a potentially devastating precedent for protections of the U.P.’s water, land, recreation and tourism. Various companies are now exploring over a dozen of other potential mining sites in the region and the state has permitted a mining processing center in the U.P., drawing additional mining to the region.
    10. Sewer system funding: This is always one of the under-the-radar stories about the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes states received $549 million to modernize and repair their sewers in FY 11– a top priority for stopping the billions of gallons of raw sewage spilled into the lakes. The Great Lakes states’ funding comes through a national program, the State Revolving Loan Fund of the Clean Water Act, as part of a formula (about one-third of the national total). This funding was cut in FY 11 by 27% and may decline even more in FY 12, even though the need is far greater.

      In the immortal words of This is Spinal Tap, “And this one goes to eleven…”

    11. Seventeen Attorneys General call for action to close the invasive species superhighway: Led by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, seventeen of the nation’s Attorneys General sent a letter to Congress calling for passage of a law to speed the Army Corps of Engineers study on closing the Chicago canal system to invasive species and then to implement the study rapidly.This letter is significant because it indicates a growing concern across the country – not just in the Great Lakes — about the passage of invasive species through the canals in both directions. Most of the attention so far has been on the potential for Asian carp to swim through the canals to Lake Michigan; but there’s at least as much danger for invasive species in Lake Michigan to travel through the canals to invade the Mississippi River and the rest of the nation. That’s already happened with zebra mussels, which began in the Great Lakes and now plague 31 states from Massachusetts to California.  With his growing national coalition of Attorneys General, the pressure on Congress and the Corps to act has increased.

For those of you keeping score, that’s seven positive developments, three negative ones, and one that’s more or less neutral (the EPA’s ballast water permit).

Although this tally is good for the Great Lakes, I’d give 2011 an overall grade of no more than a C+. Some of the good stuff was really stopping policies from getting worse (e.g., the vetoes); and the bad stuff is really bad (massive algal blooms, Asian carp).

Let’s celebrate the 2011 victories for the lakes, and then get ready for 2012. I have a feeling we’re in for quite a year.

Missed opportunities

October 7, 2011

I testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee earlier this week, and I’m not happy with myself.  I missed an opportunity. Unfortunately, so did they, and their missed opportunity has much greater consequences than mine.

I was invited to testify about nutrient problems and programs to address those problems by the Senate Water and Wildlife Subcommittee chaired by Senator Cardin of Maryland. My testimony (pdf) was straightforward: I summarized NWF’s report, Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes,  that we released earlier that day and then I passed on the observations of Lake Erie Charter Boat Association President and Captain Rick Unger.

The level of the ecosystem breakdowns the Great Lakes are experiencing really shocked the members of the subcommittee. I didn’t have time to get into details on lack of nutrients in the open waters of Lake Huron and the crash of fish populations and health there that has resulted. But I was able to provide the following snapshot:

  • This summer Lake Erie experienced the worst toxic algal bloom in its recorded history — even worse than the 1960s, when Lake Erie was declared dead. The toxic algae, mycrosystis, has been measured at levels 1,000 times higher than WHO guidelines for drinking water; this algae can cause sickness or even death in humans and animals.
  • Toxic and green algal blooms are common this summer in nearshore areas throughout the Great Lakes, including Sagainaw Bay and Green Bay.
  • We are seeing extensive blooms of the algae Cladophora along Lake Michigan’s shores, which have interacted with invasive species to produce outbreaks of botulism poisoning that have killed fish and birds.
  • Lake Erie has an anoxic zone where oxygen levels are too low for fish to live that seasonally extends thousands of square miles along the bottom of the lake.

And then I related Captain Unger’s observations. He says that the algae goes for miles along the beaches and extends miles into the open lake. In some places, the algae is two feet thick. It looks like green mud. According to Captain Unger:

“The algae is toxic. There are posted warnings: Don’t drink the water. Don’t touch it. Don’t swim in it. People are getting sick out on the water. Captains have respiratory problems.”

In terms of Captain Unger’s business, bookings are down; people don’t want to go onto the water. Rebookings are nonexistent; once they’ve been out in the algae they don’t want to go back.

When the algae moves in, the fish move out,” reports Captain Unger.
Because he has to take his boat out much farther to find fish, he says, “The costs of doing business are skyrocketing.”

Last year there were 800 charter boat captains in Lake Erie. This year, there are 700 – they lost 100 in a year. And by next year there will be a lot fewer. Captain Unger says there is no doubt that trend is because of the algae blooms.

“There’s miles and miles where the fish can’t live,” he says. “It’s turning back into the 1960s, when it was called a dead lake.”

The Senators were surprised and concerned. So far so good. So what went wrong?

Anybody who watched the hearing would see it right away (view the archived webcast). While Senator Cardin really wanted to engage on how to solve these problems – you can tell he’s completely committed to restoring the Chesapeake Bay and is passionate about addressing its terrible damage – most of his colleagues on the subcommittee wanted to play “gotcha” with the EPA instead.

After EPA’s Nancy Stoner testified about EPA’s efforts nationally and in Florida to set water quality standards that would help reduce nutrient pollution, most of the hearing was devoted to accusing EPA of trying to take over the Florida nutrient management program, of imposing its will on the states, of wrecking the economy, of driving enterprises out of business….. I was surprised they didn’t accuse EPA of ruining the housing market. Maybe that’s next week.

If this sounds familiar, it is: it’s the partisan political strategy being used in Washington to attack the Obama Administration. The problem is that it completely ignores the multiple nutrient-related crises we’re seeing in the Great Lakes and across the country: exploding numbers of algal blooms and dead zones; people getting sick and wildlife and fish dying; tourist and fishing businesses going under.

Our current laws and programs are losing ground. The largest source of nutrient pollution, non-point runoff, primarily from agriculture, is unregulated (and appears to be unregulatable). Voluntary programs hold promise but don’t have the focus, penetration, reach or funding to stem the tide of degradation, much less make improvements at scale.

So what does the Senate subcommittee do? Address the real problem? No. It plays political “gotcha” while the nation suffers.

So what was my missed opportunity? I had the chance to say all that in my five minutes of testimony, but I didn’t; I stuck to my script. And the more I think about it, the angrier I get.

I’d love to have those five minutes back but that’s not going to happen. So I’ll write it down here and share it as widely as I can. Feel free to join me.

Let’s let the subcommittee – and all of our political leaders – know that we expect them to address the nation’s real crises, not the ones that they manufacture.

The Chicago Canal Problem Goes National

September 29, 2011

This week may turn out to be a watershed moment (that’s a very intentional pun) for stopping the movement of invasive species through the Chicago canals.

On Monday, the attorneys general of seventeen states — from West Virginia to Arizona, from Louisiana to Wyoming — called on Congress to order the Army Corps of Engineers to take rapid action and install a barrier in the Chicago canal system that will permanently and hydrologically separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin (read the attorney generals’ letter to the chairs of key congressional committees (pdf).

This is the first time that top officials from states outside the Great Lakes region have weighed in on this issue, and it could be a game changer.

So why are they engaging? For them, it’s not about Asian carp. It’s about the Great Lakes sending invasive species through the Chicago canals out into the vast Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio River system. The Chicago canals threaten the health of their states – economic and ecological – and they’re beginning to fight back.

The best example is the spread of zebra mussels from the Great Lakes through the Chicago canals to the rest of the country. As I’ve posted before, you can see their spread, year by year, in this animated map published by NWF and the U.S. Geological Survey.

That damage has already been done; the zebra mussels have spread through the canals and into the Mississippi River system. What these eleven non-Great Lakes states are worrying about is the next invader to come through. Will it be quagga mussels? Eurasian ruffe? Round gobies? Spiny water fleas? Or something that has yet to invade the Great Lakes?

Kudos to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette for leading this effort. As bad as Asian carp are for the Great Lakes, he’s made other regions see that Great Lakes invaders could be equally damaging for them.

The Chicago canals are not a one-way street; they’re a highway that carries invasives in both directions. The electric fence currently in the canals will have little effect in stopping many of them.

We need a permanent  physical barrier. The safety of our nation’s waters demands it.

The Door Opens Both Ways

August 8, 2011

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As if Asian carp weren’t enough of a threat, the Detroit Free Press on Sunday  reported on a new potential invader that might attack the Great Lakes through the Chicago canal system: the snakehead fish, also known as the “Frankenfish.”

If you thought Asian carp were bad, check out this monster:

  • The snakehead uses its large jaw and big teeth to eat other fish – not just algae and microorganisms like the filter-feeding Asian carp.
  • Like the invasive carp, the snakehead breeds like a mosquito and eats like a hog. It lays thousands of eggs in multiple breeding seasons and guards its nests to protect its young. And although not quite as large as the Asian carp (adults are 3 feet in length), the snakehead also is a voracious eater.
  • The snakehead’s big claim to fame, however, is that IT CAN MOVE OVER LAND, from stream to stream! Like a snake, it wiggles along in ditches and can survive several days outside the water. It breathes air! Which means that once it establishes a breeding population, it’s very hard to contain.

The snakehead hasn’t been found in the Mississippi River…yet. But because it has established breeding populations at least one stream tributary to the Mississippi, fish biologists think it will soon reach the Big Muddy. Once there, of course, it’s only  a matter of time until they reach the Chicago canals and then Lake Michigan – unless a permanent barrier is erected first.

So the Chicago canals once again may be the conduit through which Great Lakes destruction can pass. But here’s the irony: the Chicago canal system is a door that swings both ways. The canals may soon bring species that wreak havoc on the Great Lakes; but the canals already have brought incalculable damage to the Mississippi River basin. Those canals have transmitted our very own scourge, zebra mussels, to most of the rest of the country.

You can watch that door swing right here. NWF’s Trilby Becker has worked with USGS to produce two motion maps. In one you can see the spread of Asian carp up the Mississippi , through the Chicago canals, right to the edge of the Great Lakes.  In the other, you’ll see zebra mussels start in the Great Lakes and move through the Chicago canals, down the Mississippi, to most of the rest of the country. And you can read Trilby’s blog about it.

These maps show visually what scientists found in a recent study, Aquatic Invasive Species Risk Assessment for the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (Jerde, Barnes, McNulty, Mahon, Chadderton, and Lodge, 2010): that the Chicago canals pose an equally great risk to the Mississippi River and its tributaries (like the Missouri and Ohio Rivers) as they do to the Great Lakes. The study concluded that 17 species in the Mississippi River pose a high risk to the Great Lakes, and 10 species in the Great Lakes pose an equally high risk to the Mississippi. And that doesn’t count the zebra mussels that have already infested the Mississippi and its tributaries.

So putting an effective, permanent barrier to stop invasives from moving through the Chicago canals is imperative for the Great Lakes. It’s not just Asian carp we need to worry about; there are other monsters like the snakehead out there waiting to devastate our lakes. Electric fences and half measure won’t cut it.

But we also know that this isn’t just a Great Lakes problem. What starts in the Great Lakes won’t stay there, at least without that permanent barrier. As the motion maps make all too clear, the rest of the country needs protection from the Great Lakes, too.

Fixing the Chicago canals is a national problem, and we need a national solution, fast.

A thank you letter to Congressman Fred Upton

July 14, 2011

Dear Congressman Upton,

When we read your editorial in Investor’s Business Daily blaming paralysis in Congress on conservation and environmental groups, we were surprised and touched. We felt compelled to write you this thank you letter for bestowing on the National Wildlife Federation and our partners all the credit for causing political gridlock in Congress. We didn’t know we had that kind of power! Silly us, we thought we’d been trying to end the gridlock caused by partisan members of Congress in the House and Senate. But now that we know the real story, it’s nice for you to make us feel so valued.

As a sign of our appreciation, we modestly accept your invitation to sit down and talk with you constructively about a pipeline safety bill. As you know, the oil that breached the Enbridge Pipeline and is still contaminating the Kalamazoo River is the same kind of oil that is being proposed to be transported in the Keystone XL pipeline through the Midwest, so a pipeline safety bill that addresses such hazardous material is essential. For the first time, we now understand that perhaps you were a bit intimidated by such a powerful “special interest” as conservation and environmental groups, which explains why you’d rather meet with the oil lobby than us. And perhaps that’s why we rarely saw you or your staff at the Kalamazoo River public forums we and local river groups hosted and participated in to help clean up the Enbridge oil spill.

You have offered that you’d like to develop a common-sense, balanced policy on pipeline safety. At the National Wildlife Federation, that’s just the sort of approach we like; after all, on behalf of our 49,000 Michigan members we were instrumental in successfully negotiating with the business community on the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact and in bringing $775 million in Great Lakes restoration dollars to the region. So we’d be willing to release Congress from political gridlock for a few weeks (but no more!) for an effective pipeline safety law.

Thank you again for your keen insight on our influence and power. Would you mind if we shared your perspective with other members of Congress? They may still be under the misapprehension that the oil and coal lobbies are the special interests that run Congress.

Sincerely,

Andy Buchsbaum, Regional Executive Director

Danielle Korpalski, Midwest Regional Outreach Coordinator

NWF Great Lakes Office

Ann Arbor

What happens in Ohio stays in Ohio…

June 30, 2011

What happens in Ohio stays in Ohio… ….because no other Great Lakes state is foolish enough to do what the Ohio legislature just did.

This week the Ohio Legislature passed a bill that makes a mockery of the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact— the 2008 law passed by Congress and every state (including Ohio) to protect the Great Lakes from diversions and unwise water use. The Compact prohibits diversions of Great Lakes water out of the region and requires the Great Lakes states to enact laws that protect the lakes and their tributaries from excessive water withdrawals and to implement water conservation measures. Of the eight Great Lakes states, only Ohio, and New York have yet to enact the laws needed to implement the Compact, and New York just passed its bill over a week ago.

But Ohio….. Ohio seems intent on abusing Lake Erie and the watersheds that support it in a misguided (and doomed) effort to attract water-wasting businesses.

The Ohio legislation essentially opens the door to massive withdrawals from Lake Erie, rivers in the Lake Erie basin, and underlying groundwater without standards, permitting, or agency review.

Specifically, the legislation exempts all withdrawals from Lake Erie under 5 million gallons per day, and all withdrawals from streams and groundwater under 2 million gallons per day (except for “high quality” streams, where the exemption is up to 300,000 gallons per day) . Those exemptions reportedly prompted the spokesman for the business-backed Coalition for Sustainable Water Management to say that no business has ever faced regulation in Ohio for consuming more than 2 million gallons a day – so no business in Ohio will ever need a permit to use water unless they withdraw from high-quality streams.

No other state has declared open season on Great Lakes water like Ohio is poised to do. Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania all regulate withdrawals over 100,000 gallons per day. Minnesota’s threshold is 10,000 gallons per day.

But the Ohio lawmakers seem to believe that this law will give them a competitive advantage, that businesses will rush to Ohio to escape the water regulations of other states.

Which businesses? Not the businesses who need clean and plentiful water over the long term. Those businesses will be concerned about the lack of foresight and planning from Ohio’s political leaders on water use.

And they’ll be particularly concerned about Ohio’s rush to drill thousands of natural gas wells without adequate safeguards, because those wells will further dry up Ohio’s water supplies.

Not the businesses in the knowledge economy who are mobile and decide where to locate based on quality of life. Those businesses will move to another Great Lakes state, where the Great Lakes are protected, where the state has a commitment to protecting inland lakes and streams from depletion and pollution.

So which businesses are Ohio lawmakers trying to attract? The water-wasters: the companies who are looking for short-term profits over long-term sustainability; the businesses who will use up Ohio’s precious resources and leave.

That’s quite a business strategy to inflict on the citizens and responsible businesses of Ohio. Will it work? Let’s see what the Brookings Institution has to say:

“The Midwestern states that surround the Great Lakes are in a time of economic transition – from an agricultural and industrial era that relied on the Great Lakes and its waterways for transportation and industrial production, to a global knowledge economi in which the lakes are both an increasing valuable resource, and a valuable amenity. Outside the region, the United States and other nations around the world are increasingly looking for ways to move beyond economic growth patterns that diminish natural resources to those that support long-term sustainable development. The Great Lakes and their abundant fresh water offer a doorway to this new economy.”

Ohio is shutting that door. The irony here is that Ohio has actually put itself in a worse competitive position for attracting and retaining business. That’s why former Ohio Governor Bob Taft and former Ohio Governor and Senator George Voinovich, both Republicans, have called on their Republican colleagues in the state legislature to redo the bill.

And so have the leading newspapers in the state, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Dayton Daily News, the Morning Journal and the Akron Beacon Journal.

So now this bill that’s bad for the Great Lakes, bad for Ohio’s rivers and streams, and bad for Ohio business goes to Governor Kasich to his signature or veto.

Governor, this is a no-brainer. Send this bill back to the legislature with instructions that it comes up with a win-win, not a lose-lose.

Asian Carp Update: Part II – Short Term Actions

June 17, 2011

Last post, I promised to do a multi-part update on Asian carp, moving from recent sampling to short term actions to long term actions to threats outside the Chicago Area Waterway System.

To sum up the recent sampling results, it’s pretty clear that there are isolated Asian carp in the Chicago waterway system past the electric fence, but the fish do not appear to be present in breeding populations. Which is good news; it means we have time to get a permanent fix for this crisis.

Today’s post takes on short term actions – particularly, last month’s report from the government’s Asian carp task force.

Let’s be clear at the outset: we need to keep our eye on the ball, which is permanent separation of the Mississippi River system from Lake Michigan. And I’ll discuss that in the next post. But the recent government report, with the oh-so-interesting title of “Monitoring and Rapid Response Plan for Asian Carp on the Upper Illinois River and Chicago Area Waterway System,” (pdf) is not designed to address permanent separation; it addresses primarily the short-term actions that the agencies have been employing for several years.

Those short-term actions include:

  • upgrading the electric fence that deters carp from moving up the canals toward the lake
  • preventing carp-infested waters from flooding from the Des Plaines River into the canals
  • reducing the population pressures of Asian carp from below the electric fence (so there are fewer fish available to travel upstream toward the lake)
  • netting and commercial fishing operations
  • poisoning stretches of the canals when the monster carp appear to be present
  • testing out new methods of killing or repelling the carp
  • continuing to conduct eDNA testing for Asian carp in Chicago’s canals

Although the report doesn’t feature any groundbreaking developments, it actually does show progress for short-term activities. It’s pretty much in line with what we asked them to do in the short term when I testified before the Senate a year ago–you can read my full testimony on Asian carp here (pdf).

Discussions of hydroguns and other fanciful technologies aside, the main thrust of the monitoring and rapid response report is that:

  1. They have developed a trigger-response mechanism for making management decisions, just as we demanded that they do.
  2. The triggers include eDNA evidence, sometimes in isolation.
  3. While they don’t explicitly defend the validity of eDNA evidence as I’d like to see, they do defend it implicitly, as they are willing to take management actions based on DNA evidence alone.
  4. The availability and transparency of the eDNA evidence has improved dramatically.
  5. Their plan moving forward for sampling and rapid response looks pretty solid.

The fundamental problem with the report is the way it was marketed and covered. It is not designed to address long-term solutions; even the name of the report indicates how limited it is. The report is supposed to complement the long-term actions that the long-term plan, the Great Lakes Mississippi River Separation Study, is designed to develop, not substitute for them.

The coverage was confusing and misleading, probably not helped by news release put out by the agencies online, which implies that this report describes all the efforts of the agencies on CAWS; it never mentions long term separation.

Most importantly, the report reflects a change in attitude and action by the agencies. It shows they have are relying on the best evidence – including eDNA evidence – to make rational decisions on how to slow the continued march of Asian carp past existing barriers. If this action plan was accompanied by a timely and robust schedule for completing a permanent and effective barrier, I’d say it does the job it needs to do.

Unfortunately, the plans for the permanent barrier is woefully lacking…. And so the agencies seem to be relying on this short-term plan as a long-term solution. And that’s a recipe for disaster.

Stay tuned for next week’s post on what’s happening (or not) with the permanent barrier.

Asian Carp Update, Part I: New eDNA Evidence

May 31, 2011

After a long blogging hiatus, I’m jumping back in after being inspired by yesterday’s ESPN episode on Asian carp; what a great piece!

The ESPN Outside the Lines piece went right to where the worst impacts of the carp would be: Lake Erie.  It included interviews of a bunch of charter boat captains, including our longtime partner Rick Unger. The show appears to be a rebroadcast from November of last year.

Except for the ESPN piece, the news coverage on Asian carp has been quiet. That quiet is misleading, because there’s an awful lot happening, too much to put into a single post:

  • the most recent sampling data
  • short-term actions,
  • long-term actions,
  • threats from outside the Chicago canal system, and more.

Today I’ll start with an update on Asian carp sampling data, and cover the other topics in the weeks to come.

If you’ve been following the media (or lack of it), you’d think that all is well: that is, that there is no new evidence of Asian carp above the electric fence. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

The most recent eDNA evidence of Asian carp in the Chicago canal system from the last three months of 2010 documents the presence of Asian carp beyond the barrier on multiple occasions: 7 silver carps hits and 2 bighead carp positives. In addition, 6 samples were positive for silver and bighead carp in the DesPlaines River north and east of the electric fence in the canal. If the Des Plaines floods into the Chicago canals (and with the recent construction of berms and fences between the two waterbodies, it shouldn’t), the flooding would occur above the electric fence. The Corps’ eDNA surveillance map  identifies where the samples were taken.

Click for a full size pdf of the sampling map:

eDNA Results Map

So why isn’t the evidence of Asian carp beyond the barrier all over the news?  We’re looking at 15 Asian carp hits above the electric fence in 3 months. The Asian carp eDNA is a clear indication that the electric fence is not 100 percent effective and that Asian carp are swimming freely in the Chicago canals with an open path the Lake Michigan just a few miles away.

A year ago, far less evidence of Asian carp triggered a crisis and made headlines all around the region, but not this time.

I can think of three reasons the current evidence of Asian carp beyond the electric fence is not getting the press it deserves, none of which makes these findings any less important:

  1. The Asian carp issue is suffering from media fatigue; the media are tired of covering it. Sorry, I don’t buy it. I think the media will cover any part of this issue that seems like a new development (and even some that don’t). Witness the ESPN story yesterday. I think it’s less media fatigue, and more…
  2. The Corps’ release of the samples is so slow that by the time the data are public, they’re no longer news. Even these most recent data cover the period from October-December, 2010. Why can’t the Corps get this information online faster? The agency’s delays make this crisis seem less urgent, when it most certainly is not.
  3. The Chicago shipping industry and many of the government agencies have really downplayed the eDNA results. When the agencies release the most recent monitoring data on Asian carp, they don’t start with the eDNA tests that indicate the presence of the carp. Instead they start with other sampling techniques – netting, commercial fishing, electrofishing – that scientists uniformly agree would not be expected to find Asian carp in the Chicago canal system.  So it’s no surprise that they don’t find the carp through those methods.

    Rarely do the agency reports acknowledge eDNA samples that show the presence of Asian carp, and if they do, it’s usually in a way that minimizes the importance of those samples (so from October to December, they point out that there were 1330 samples processed, and 15 samples, or 1 percent, showed evidence of Asian carp).

    I agree it makes sense to put the positive DNA hits in a larger context to demonstrate that Asian carp do not yet appear to be present in breeding populations in the Chicago Area Waterway System.

    But, you can only put the DNA evidence in context if you first reveal and discuss the fact that the DNA evidence again and again shows that there are Asian carp past the electric fence. And when you put it in that context, the problem is as urgent as ever. The lack of breeding population only means that we actually have time to fix the problem before it’s too late. We still have hope.

That’s it for this week. Next time I’ll talk about short-term actions to prevent Asian carp in the Great Lakes and what we’re seeing there.