Posts Tagged ‘Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal’

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.

The New York Times Weighs In

December 29, 2009

Today’s editorial in the Times recognizes how devastating an Asian carp invasion would be to the Great Lakes, and it recommends both emergency closure of the navigational locks in the Chicago canal system and a permanent separation between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin. Support for those common sense measures is building.

I hope the Army Corps of Engineers is listening; there’s no need to wait for a Supreme Court order to do the right thing.

Asian Carp Won’t Wait

December 28, 2009

First, for a good take on Michigan’s lawsuit against Illinois over the invasive Asian carp, check out yesterday’s Washington Post article.

And thanks to NWF’s senior attorney Neil Kagan, we’ve got some more info on the legal processes and timelines for the carp lawsuit:

  • Ohio filed a motion on December 23 in support of Michigan’s request to modify the Supreme Court consent decree that governs the Chicago diversion in order to stop Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan.
  • Illinois’s response to Michigan’s filings is due December 31.
  • The Supreme Court is meeting in a regularly scheduled “conference” on January 8, and it will take up Michigan’s lawsuit then. Nobody knows what issues it will decide then, much less how it will decide them.

So despite the Supreme Court’s reputation for slow and deliberate action, at least for now this case is moving at warp speed. And that’s essential, because the Asian carp won’t wait.

Close the navigation locks? It’s a question of risk.

December 11, 2009

In the past two weeks I’ve talked to a lot of people, including many officials on the Rapid Response Team, and I haven’t found anybody who disagrees with this statement: any Asian carp beyond the electric fence have an open path to Lake Michigan unless the navigational locks are closed.

So if there are Asian carp beyond the fence, then the agencies really have no choice. No matter what the drawbacks, they have to close the locks until they can find other ways of cutting off those monster fish from the Great Lakes. The consequences of their invasion would be too devastating, ecologically and economically. And I think you’d find that the agencies would agree.

So why is it so hard to get the Corps and the other agencies to close the locks?

I think it’s their perception of risk.

People see risk very subjectively, and the folks in the agencies are no different. In this case, their perceptions are colored by what they have described as some very harmful consequences from closing the locks: lost materials, lost jobs, maybe even flooding in Chicago. Now, there’s a real question about how many of these consequences are real and how many could be avoided, but that’s an inquiry the agencies would rather not pursue. So instead, they engage in a little wishful thinking about how likely it is that Asian carp are present beyond the electric fence in the Cal Sag channel.

What’s the risk that there Asian carp in the channel?

Nobody knows for sure, but here’s what the evidence says.

On the one hand, we know that DNA tests taken in the water in the Cal Sag channel contain Asian and silver carp DNA. How many are positive? Not one, not two, but 32 tests found Asian and silver carp DNA in various places along the channel.

On the other hand, sampling in the river hasn’t turned up any Asian carp fish. That sampling included electroshocking and extensive netting by commercial fisherman in parts of the channel. It caught 800 other fish, but no Asian carp. Now, we don’t know how extensive that sampling was. The Illinois DNR is due to put out a report soon that will tell us. But based on what we know, the sampling caught only a fraction of the total fish in the channel.

So what does the evidence mean? To understand it better, look at what happened at the other stretch of canal where DNA testing and sampling was done, the 6-mile stretch between the Lockport Lock and the electric fence. There, DNA testing only had one positive sample. There, the agencies did extensive electroshocking and netting. And there, they found no Asian carp…. until they killed all the fish in that stretch of the canal with poison. Only then did they find an Asian carp (dead by that time). And they now believe there are probably more dead Asian carp at the bottom of the canal.

So based on that experience, it’s reasonable to expect that there are Asian carp in the Cal Sag channel. There’s much more Asian carp DNA in the channel than there was in the canal, and the sampling techniques used in the Cal Sag channel were the same ones that failed to reveal the Asian carp that was present in the canal. Bottom line, the presence of carp in the canal is a strong indicator of carp in the channel, even though the channel sampling hasn’t found them yet.

Asian carp jumping

Asian carp | Photo: Jason Lindsey

I suspect that this is where the agencies have gone wrong. They don’t want to close the locks unless there’s solid proof that there are populations of Asian carp in the channel, and to them, that means finding live fish.

But they’ve missed the point. Sure, close the locks if they find hundreds of Asian carp. But also close the locks if there’s a significant risk of Asian carp in the channel. And the way the evidence looks now – in fact, the way it’s looked for the past three weeks since the Asian carp DNA tests were first released – there’s a high risk that Asian carp are in the channel.

If the agencies have evidence they haven’t shared, let’s see it. Otherwise, no more delay. It’s time to close the locks.

This Dithering is Alarmingly Familiar

December 9, 2009

Read Jeff Alexander’s post from NWF’s Wildlife Promise about the eerie and alarming resemblance between the government’s dithering over closing off Asian carp access to the Great Lakes and the government’s failure to stop invasions from the St. Lawrence Seaway:

Asian carp: History offers an important lesson, but will we repeat the past?

-By Jeff Alexander

American philosopher George Santayana once made a chilling comment about those who forget the lessons of history, saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Santayana’s comment is particular relevant considering the current, frantic effort to keep Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes.


O'Brien Lock and Dam | Photo: US Corps

O'Brien Lock and Dam | Photo: US Corps

A heated debate is brewing over whether to close locks in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to prevent Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan and, ultimately, colonizing all the Great Lakes. Shipping interests argue that closing the canal would hurt their industry.

The question at hand is whether dramatic — perhaps radical — action is needed to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. That’s where history can teach government officials an important lesson.

The historical record shows that the plague of invasive species wreaking ecological and economic havoc in the Great Lakes was a largely preventable problem. This ecological train wreck wasn’t avoided because federal agencies in the U.S. and Canada repeatedly ignored the threat that ocean freighters’ ballast water discharges posed to the lakes until it was too late.

The results have been devastating. The 57 invaders that ocean freighters dumped in the Great Lakes over the past five decades now cause between $200 million and $400 million damage annually. Two of the worst invaders, zebra and quagga mussels, are causing the most profound ecological changes in the Great in recorded history.

Now the lakes face a major new threat in the form of Asian carp. The massive fish, which can grow to 100 pounds, could take a huge bite out of a food chain that sustains the Great Lakes $7 billion per year fishery.

One species of Asian carp, the silver carp, rockets out of the water when agitated by boat motors. The fish pose potentially lethal threats to boaters and would create unprecedented challenges for the Great Lakes’ $11 billion recreational boating economy.

Asian carp jumping | Photo: Jason Lindsey

Asian carp jumping | Photo: Jason Lindsey

To allow beastly Asian carp to infest the Great Lakes, for the sake of a much less valuable shipping trade in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, makes no sense.

Then again, it made no sense for the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards to ignore repeated studies that showed ocean freighters were importing zebra mussels and dozens of other foreign species into the Great Lakes in ballast water tanks.

The U.S. and Canada refused to crack down on those ballast water discharges until 2006 — 25 years after the problem was documented — because government agencies put the shipping industry’s interests above the health of Great Lakes ecosystems and the numerous services the lakes provide.

Government agencies face a similar choice today: Protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp by closing locks in the Chicago canal, or bow to a marginal shipping trade and keep the locks open.

The moment is at hand when government officials charged with protecting the Great Lakes must decide whether to heed the lessons of history or repeat the appalling mistakes of the past.