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.