Posts Tagged ‘invasive species’

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.


Houston, we have a solution

April 14, 2010

I spent much of last week at NWF’s annual meeting in Houston, Texas, with affiliated organizations from 46 different states and Washington, D.C. While national issues like climate change took up most of the agenda, guess what caused the biggest stir? That’s right, Asian carp.

Everybody had heard about these huge flying fish, they knew the crisis facing the Great Lakes, and they wanted to know how to help.

They found a way. Several of our affiliates, led by Illinois’ Prairie Rivers Network and NWF Board member Clark Bullard (also from Illinois), proposed a resolution calling for hydrological separation of the Mississippi River system and the Great Lakes basin, to be done as rapidly as possible. That resolution went through committee last week and was voted on by the all of the NWF affiliates.

The result? Unanimous approval.

Check out this television news segment and article from Chicago’s Fox News on NWF’s carp resolution.


Wildlife Federation Wants Drastic Anti-Carp Measures

Chicago – The National Wildlife Federation is calling for drastic steps to protect the Great Lakes from Asian Carp. The plan, approved unanimously at the federation’s national meeting in Houston, calls for setting up a barrier to separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River Basin.

The plan would once again reverse the flow of the Chicago River so it would empty into Lake Michigan.

The barrier could be set up out near Romeoville or Joliet, according to Clark Bullard, one of the Illinois representatives. Electric barriers now in place in the shipping canal currently serve as the barrier to keep the carp from migrating into Lake Michigan.

Read the rest of the story

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.

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.

A little progress…

January 29, 2010

For the first time in months, a week has gone by without any bad news on Asian carp. OK, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of government action, but it sure beats the weekly, and sometimes daily, diet of bad news we’ve seen since November.

And there has been some positive movement. The Administration set a date, February 8, for a White House summit on Asian carp. Although the summit involves only the Administration and the governors, the White House is making further plans for a much broader public meeting that will involve many stakeholders. There are no guarantees about either process, but they offer another path (in addition to litigation) for confronting the carp, and we need every possible option on the table.

The agencies this week also seem to have made some progress. First, they’ve stopped debating whether Asian carp are present where the eDNA says they are. The agencies now acknowledge that the odds are very high that the carp are present at the positive eDNA sampling locations. This admission is important because it means they recognize the problem, and as any 12-step program will tell you, that’s the first step toward recovery.

The agencies also are stepping up their efforts to characterize the Chicago canal and river system through additional monitoring via eDNA sampling, netting, and electroshocking, another important step in determining how bad the problem is and where the best places are to attack it.

Most significantly, the agency scientists believe that the Asian and silver carp currently in the Chicago waterway system will not be able to reproduce while in that system because they need far longer uninterrupted stretches of water than the canals can provide. Other scientists I’ve talked to have said the same thing. That’s critically important because it means that even with a few carp in the canals beyond the electric fence, we still have time to stop the advance of the monster carp before they achieve breeding populations in Lake Michigan.

My concern is that progress is slow and the invasive carp are not — they leap over, through and beyond the incremental measures we take. Addressing a crisis is different than tackling many of the slower-moving problems we face in the Great Lakes. Cleaning up a toxic hotspot can take decades; building a new sewer system takes years. The Asian carp problem is more like the outbreak of epidemic: we have weeks, and maybe days, to develop a plan and implement it.

So these small measures of good news do nothing to ease the urgency for action. Most importantly, the agencies must find a way to get ahead of the carp. Almost all the emergency actions taken to date have been reactive: carp eDNA show up somewhere new, and the agencies scramble to respond.  That process has created confusion and mistrust. The agencies need to think ahead. They need a contingency plan that defines the triggers for action and then the actions that will be taken if those triggers occur. The agencies have informed us they are working on that plan…. but that plan should have been in place at least two months ago, if not earlier.

And yes, the contingency plan should consider all actions, including closing the navigational locks. It’s inconceivable to me that the lock closure option has never really been explored. To my knowledge (and I’ve asked repeatedly), nobody in government has even looked at transportation alternatives to the canals in moving cargo from Lake Michigan into Chicago, what the extra costs of those alternatives might be, and how those costs could be defrayed. Call me crazy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that federal money could be available to help fund those alternatives. Has anybody even checked?

So let’s look back on this week with relief and a little hope. But lets look forward with the same urgency and determination that’s we’ve needed since the monster carp crisis began.

Each Day, a New Wrinkle

January 23, 2010

It seems like every day this week brought a new wrinkle to the efforts to stop monster Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes. Here’s a partial rundown:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court denied Michigan’s request for an emergency order to close the locks in the Chicago sewer system to stop bighead and silver carp from entering Lake Michigan. But the Court has not yet ruled on Michigan’s request for a long-term solution, the permanent hydrologic separation of Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River system.
  • The same day, we learned from the Army Corps of Engineers that new eDNA samples indicated that the invasive carp had gotten farther than anybody thought: past the O’Brien Lock, and even into Calumet Harbor, a bay in Lake Michigan itself.
  • The White House’s top environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley, announced a “carp summit” would be held in the next few weeks. Midwest governors will be invited, but we don’t know about anybody else. The summit won’t accomplish much if it doesn’t include key Great Lakes stakeholders, so I hope they (we) are included.
  • A bipartisan group of members of Congress introduced bills in the U.S. House and Senate to require the federal government to close the locks and block the Chicago canals immediately to stop the carp from advancing any further. Rep. Camp (R-MI) led the charge in the House with H.R. 4472, imaginatively titled the “CLOSE ALL ROUTES and PREVENT ASIAN CARP TODAY” Act and also know as the CARP Act. Senator Stabenow introduced something similar in the Senate.

Taken together, I think these developments lead to three conclusions:

First, the debate over whether the invasive carp are where the eDNA says they are is virtually over. If a DNA test is positive, then a live carp was there shortly before the DNA sample was taken. How do we know that? Because the scientists say that eDNA samples degrade after 48 hours and they probably come from the stomach contents of live carp. That means a live carp was likely swimming in the area the DNA was found within 48 hours of the taking of the sample. So dumping of dead fish or parts of dead fish, or the discharge of ballast water containing carp residue, is highly unlikely to produce those results. On this point scientists from all sides of the legal debate are pretty much in agreement.

Second, the question now moves on to whether there are reproducible populations of bighead and silver carp in the Chicago canals and the Great Lakes, and if not, when such populations might arrive. Here again, scientists from across the board are largely in agreement that the populations of carp in the canals and the lake aren’t yet at reproducible levels; the inability to find live fish indicate the population densities must be very low. But the scientists don’t know when such high levels might be reached. So that’s where the uncertainty lies over the risk the carp pose and the solutions we should pursue.

Third and finally, I think our best hope for getting action quickly at this point is the White House Summit. I’m not suggesting backing off from the litigation or legislative options, but the White House Summit now is likely to get results faster. President Obama and his top advisors are from Chicago; they know the players; and they are committed to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes (notwithstanding some of the statements the Solicitor General made in the brief before the Supreme Court). With their guidance and the full participation of all the important stakeholders, the Summit could craft a response that is rapid and effective. What we don’t know is whether the Summit will include the right players. Of course the states are essential participants, but so are key cities (like Chicago), the sewer district, environmental organizations, and business interests. Truly effective action will need to include all the stakeholders.

Stay tuned for what’s likely to another roller coaster ride next week….

Today’s score: Carp 2, Great Lakes 0

January 19, 2010

I returned from China today after an amazing trip (more about that in a later post), and arrive to find that Asian carp continue to beat up the Great Lakes.

Today’s news is a double whammy: the Supreme Court denied Michigan’s request for an emergency closure of the locks, and the Army Corps of Engineers released new eDNA data suggesting that the monster carp are already in Lake Michigan. We’re all trying to sort through this now.

In the meantime, below is today’s news release from the environmental organizations trying to stop this invasion:

For Immediate Release
Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010

Immediate Action Critical to Stop Carp Invasion
Illinois Diversion Question Still on the Table

The Supreme Court’s ruling today denying Michigan’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have forced emergency measures to keep the invading Asian carp out of Lake Michigan puts the onus for stopping an invasion squarely on the federal government, which had strongly resisted Michigan’s request.

At the same time, the nation’s highest court did not yet act on Michigan’s request to reopen a nearly century-old case allowing Chicago to divert its wastewater from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. The court provided no comment in its ruling.

The ruling comes as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is poised to announce at a 1:30 p.m. (CST) press conference the discovery of Asian carp in Lake Michigan, according to press accounts.

The artificial connection in Illinois creates an aquatic superhighway for the jumbo-sized Asian carp and other invasive species to travel between the Lake Michigan and Mississippi watersheds, and has now led the potentially devastating fish to the doorstep of Lake Michigan.


Next post from… China

January 11, 2010

Talk about ironic. As we wait to see what the Supreme Court will do about the threat of invasive Asian carp entering the Great Lakes, I’m on my way to talk about the Great Lakes at a conference in Nanjing, China.  The conference, put on by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environmental Forum, is about Lake Tai, China’s third largest lake, and how to address its pollution problems. I’ll be talking about the Great Lakes as a success story, highlighting the enactment of the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Water Resources Compact and the development and funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. And of course, I’ll also be talking about invasive species – one in particular. I’ll try to avoid causing an international incident.

Before I begin posting about Lake Tai next week, today I wanted to return to the Asian carp problem here in the U.S. and our government’s response to it. As the legal briefs fly and the rhetoric heats up, I think it’s important to remember that every government agency involved in this process cares deeply about the Great Lakes and is exerting enormous efforts to keep the invasive carp out of the Great Lakes. We may disagree with their strategy or methods, but folks in the Obama Administration and the Illinois DNR have been pulling all-nighters through the holidays to try to get a handle on how to protect the lakes from the carp and we need to recognize that.

And we can’t lose sight of the fact that this Administration has already, in its first year, done more for the Great Lakes than any other in history, that President Obama is truly our first Great Lakes president, and that we’re in agreement with the Administration on virtually every other Great Lakes issue.

So let’s not fall into the trap of demonizing people we might disagree with, particularly here, where there are good people in Illinois and the federal agencies who are working very hard to address a really tough problem. Yes, I and others think that the evidence of the presence of carp in the Chicago canal system creates enormous risks to the Great Lakes and compels certain emergency and permanent actions – the temporary closing of the navigation locks and long-term separation of Lake Michigan from Mississippi River basin. And yes, the Administration and Illinois thus far have been unwilling to take those measures, and we support Michigan’s efforts in the Supreme Court to compel them to do so. We will continue to be clear about that. But this is a disagreement among friends who share common goals and we should act that way. The fact remains that this threat is likely to be resolved more quickly and completely through collaboration than conflict. So dialing down the rhetoric, keeping communication channels open, and maintaining strong relationships is more important now than ever.

On to China. I’ll see if I can a good bighead or silver carp recipe…

Tune in this morning

January 7, 2010

I’ll be on the radio this morning with the Michigan Attorney General. 

Tune in to WDET 101.9fm at 10:30 am to the Craig Fahle Show, or listen to the broadcast live online.