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Easing the public’s “separation anxiety” over talk of splitting the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins to stop an Asian carp invasion was the goal of an Alliance webinar featuring the leaders behind the most in-depth study on the topic to date.
Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, and David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, on Wednesday walked 100 participants through three possible separation scenarios, outlined in their groups' broadly supported recent study: "Restoring the Natural Divide."
Joel Brammeier, Alliance president and CEO, said that since the alarm first sounded in the early 2000s about the Asian carp’s potential entry into Lake Michigan, the debate has morphed into a larger discussion about issues involving Chicago’s infrastructure -- clean water, transportation and flood control – as well as invasive species prevention in the Great Lakes.
"I am hopeful we are now able to confront the Asian carp problem with answers that provide a visionary path forward for the Great Lakes region,” he said.
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Eder recognized Brammeier and the Alliance for its leadership role on the carp issue and said the GLC-GLSLCI report builds on a foundation Brammeier first laid in 2008.
“There was another seminal report that was done several years before this work and that was led by Joel Brammeier and the Alliance,” Eder said. “It looked at the possibility of separation and really presented separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River as a viable option -– one that could be explored, should be explored and could be implemented.”
Eder said the GLC-GLSLCI study, funded with $2 million from six private foundations led by the Joyce Foundation, is based on the premise that restoring the natural divide between the two major watersheds is the only sure way to keep Asian carp and other invasive species from traveling between them.
Beyond that, however, he said the study recognizes that the same water that threatens to lead Asian carp to Lake Michigan has critical uses for the Chicago area: transportation, flood protection, water quality and waste assimilation among them. To that end, any solution to the invasive species problem must also work for Chicago.
Eder and Ullrich outlined the study’s three options for placing permanent earthen barriers in the Chicago Waterways System: downriver, mid-system and near-lake. They noted that the study didn't set out to recommend a solution, only to look at the options.
In all three scenarios, they said factors such as disruptions to transportation, recreational and shipping access, water quality and flood control must be weighed against the potential price tags -- which range from the mid-system alternative’s $4.2 billion to $9.5 billion for each of the other two.
“We did not come out with a preferred alternative, but I don’t think it takes a genius to see that there are several elements of the mid-system alternative that make it more viable and more attractive -- one of which is the cost,” said Ullrich.
While the costs of all three scenarios are significant, Ullrich said they are not out of line considering the estimated $10 billion-$11 billion spent over the last century to build the CWS when adjusted to today’s dollars, and the $3.7 billion price tag for Chicago’s current Tunnel and Reservoir Plan to address sewage overflows.
Eder noted the potential costs of doing nothing would be far higher. “It’s not possible to know the impact of an invasion by Asian carp into the Great Lakes,” he said. “We know it would be severe.”
If Asian carp gain a foothold in the Great Lakes they could devastate the Great Lakes fishery, for example, valued at $7 billion in economic activity. Eder said the impact of just one invasive species already in the Great Lakes, the zebra mussel, is estimated at $500 million annually.
Answering a question by participant Joan Rothenberg about whether all the money spent on building barriers could stop someone from simply dropping an Asian carp in the CWS lakeward of the barrier -– a popular argument among barrier critics -- Eder noted that any solution must address other potential vectors for the carp's entry into the Great Lakes.
“This is intended to look at what is the most likely pathway for Asian carp or other invasive species to enter the Great Lakes, (which) is through that continuous connection that’s made between the Great Lakes and the Chicago River,” he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is conducting its own congressionally ordered study, will have the final say on the solution. But Eder and Ullrich said the corps will be closely watched by the broader Great Lakes community and Congress, and that local decision makers will also weigh in.
In the meantime, Eder said the corps has been briefed on the study, including a full-day session last week with the corps’ technical staff.
“They are digesting the report, they’re reacting to it, and they’ve promised to generate a report with some reactions by the end of this month,” he said.
The Alliance’s Brammeier noted that since the study’s release, the corps has committed to shortening the timeframe for its own study, currently scheduled to be completed in 2015.
“We’re hopeful that the rapidity with which this study was completed has informed the corps to such an extent that they can start shaving some months or years off of their own timeline,” he said.
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