Asian carp forces troubleshooters to dream big

Chicago Tribune
June 27, 2010
By: Joel Hood

A century ago, reversing the Chicago River and building a complex system of channels to steer sewage away from Lake Michigan was considered one of the great engineering feats in world history.

As concerns mount about Asian carp, momentum is building to re-engineer Chicago's waterways to allow for the passage of boats and ships, but not harmful invasive species.

Calling it a Burnham Plan for the new millennium, lawmakers and environmental leaders from around the Great Lakes are talking about what the proposed water system might look like, how it could function, and what it would cost.

"We have to double our efforts," U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Friday, three days after fishermen discovered a 20-pound Asian carp in Lake Calumet, 6 miles from Lake Michigan. "This was a warning to us that we need to do more, and we need to do it quickly."

Durbin and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have teamed up on a bill they plan to introduce this week that would force the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls boat traffic on Chicago's waterways, to study severing the vital 100-year-old shipping corridor that made northern Illinois an industrial powerhouse.

"What makes Chicago great are those waterways," said Mark Biel, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois. "It defies logic why anybody would want a physical separation of the waterways. To me, it seems like the ultimate pipe dream."

Each year, millions of tons of steel, petroleum and other cargo pass through the twisting man-made corridors that feed from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River and on to the Mississippi River and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. Critics say placing physical barriers would restrict cargo vessels, increase costs, slow down delivery and force many Chicago businesses to move elsewhere.

Though the idea of separating the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River is not new, few inside Illinois took it seriously until the recent firestorm over Asian carp, an invasive species that has left a trail of destruction on its 30-year migration up the Mississippi River and into Illinois.

A native of China with no known predators in the U.S., the Asian carp is large and has a near bottomless appetite for plankton and other food crucial to native fish. Certain types of Asian carp, some topping 50 pounds, are also known to leap from the water when agitated, sometimes injuring boaters.