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Asian carp: foe, friend or delicacy for the Great Lakes?

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In response to the cries about the Asian carp threatening to invade the Great Lakes, Congress has asked the Chicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare a feasibility study to investigate the potential environmental, economic and social effects of the measures being considered that would implement a range of possible modifications to the electric barriers, the only present-day battlefields against the carp. These adjustments would improve the efficacy and the evaluation of other fish deterrents and additional barriers in the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS).

The CAWS covers Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC), the Calumet rivers, the Calumet Harbor and the Calumet-Sag Channel. Other studies could be initiated later that would involve the hydrological severance and reversal of the direction of the Chicago River, returning it to its original course into Lake Michigan. This would entail the physical separation of the CSSC from the Illinois River and would halt all navigation between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.

Formidable issues would remain: What would be done with the sewage-laden Chicago River if it could no longer flow into Lake Michigan before the costly removal of the waste and cleaning of the water? Reversing the course of the Chicago River could be an attainable engineering feat, at an astronomical cost, by reconfiguring the massive underground tunnels that were designed 100 years ago. Adding this cost to real estate taxes is an unaffordable option.

Reversing the direction of the Chicago River is the wish of every environmentalist that abhors what was done a century ago. Was the decision well-researched before its execution? It’s not difficult to understand that there may have been a rush to judgment in the days of the stockyards, when the river was used as a dumping ground. Were the environmentalists of those days too short-sighted to predict that invasive species might threaten the Great Lakes? Five Great Lakes states are suing for the immediate and permanent sealing of the Chicago locks, where all of the CAWS watersheds intersect with Lake Michigan.

Other means, not involving the severance and directional change of the Chicago River, to halt the advance of the Asian carp are being studied. Additional electrical barriers could be installed on the Des Plaines and the Illinois rivers, along with fortified riverbanks to defend against flooding and watershed mixing between the rivers and the CAWS watersheds during heavy rainstorms.

Although the Asian carp is clearly a threat, this issue also acts as an opportunity for the other Great Lakes states to bring up the Great Lakes Compact provisions. The compact calls for the return to the Great Lakes of what is siphoned from them. The state of Illinois and the city of Chicago, with their millions of inhabitants, remove 2.1 billion gallons of water daily from Lake Michigan at no cost, for drinking water and for the flushing of waste that is exempt from compliance, as the Supreme Court decreed in 1929.

Chicago’s outgoing Mayor Daley has called for the reversal of the flow, with ecology in mind. Assuming that money could be made available through federal and/or private sources to reconfigure waste-processing infrastructure, Chicago could proceed by using the water needed for waste treatment, cleaning it and returning it to Lake Michigan. The upside for Chicago would then be the entitlement to the 2.1 billion gallons that it owns by decree. Chicago could then sell the 2.1 billion gallons of water to surrounding municipalities in need of water. The Illinois River would get a new life, no longer receiving Chicago’s waste material.

The Asian carp spawns much controversy. It is considered a good food by some, and some restaurants across the United States are serving it on their menus. The carp often grow to 100 pounds each and could become valuable game fish. So how bad of a fish is it?

For those who want to have a better understanding of this creature, the Asian bighead carp is neither friend nor foe. It is a hybrid that swam against all odds, all the way to the doorstep of Chicago to save the Great Lakes.

— F. Ned Dikmen
Chairman of the Great Lakes Boating Federation and publisher of Great Lakes Boating magazine

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