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Environmental Groups Join Supreme Court Fight Over Asian Carp

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Asian carp
NRDC and its allies support Michigan's attempt to keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes

Some of the nation's largest environmental groups have joined a Supreme Court battle aimed at stopping the destructive Asian carp from infesting the Great Lakes.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Alliance for the Great Lakes filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Friday supporting Michigan's request that the U.S. Supreme Court reopen a nearly century-old case dealing with the diversion of water from Lake Michigan into Chicago-area canals.

Those canals are providing an outlet for Asian carp to enter the Great Lakes, potentially devastating the region's water quality and $7 billion fishing industry.

Michigan and the environmental groups argue that the Supreme Court should appoint a "special master" -- an expert in water law, shipping, or related fields -- to decide whether to temporarily close the locks on Chicago-area canals and create an ecological separation between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins (meaning that fish and other marine life couldn't pass from one to the other).

"Having the Supreme Court available as this neutral arbiter of disputes among states would take it out of this world we're in now where we're being asked by the state of Illinois and the Army Corps to just trust them," said NRDC staff attorney Thom Cmar. "There are all sorts of reasons why we're concerned we can't simply trust them."

Disputes Over Economic Impact

Illinois and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have balked at the idea of temporarily closing the navigational locks while seeking a longer-term solution. They say they're worried about the economic impact; the Chicago-area canals are an important shipping corridor for the region.

But on Thursday, experts released a study showing that a temporary closure of the locks would have a much smaller economic impact than previously thought -- less than $70 million annually, versus the Army Corps' estimate of $190 million.

John Taylor, an associate professor of supply chain management at Wayne State University in Detroit, and James Roach, a consultant formerly with the Michigan Department of Transportation, said lock closure would affect less than 1 percent of Chicago-area freight. They say trains and trucks could take on the cargo that needs to bypass the locks, a change that would only increase truck traffic by 10 percent.

They found that waterway traffic has dropped significantly in the Chicago system (as well as nationally) in recent years, and closing the locks and transferring cargo via an expanded intermodal system would actually create more jobs than would be lost. In 2008, the Alliance for the Great Lakes released a study that found significant support among industry groups and other stakeholders for such a move.

NRDC's Cmar said the Army Corps' $190 million estimate refers to the overall value of shipping on the Illinois River system, including the canals that connect with Lake Michigan. In reality, it is likely the river and canals could still be used for much shipping -- including coal delivery to two Chicago power plants -- even if locks were closed.

At a February 12 public hearing in Chicago, water taxi owners, cruise boat operators, and employees of other waterway-related industries worried that their jobs would be lost if the locks are closed. But experts say closure would not necessarily mean that the waterway would be unusable.

Reopening an Old Lawsuit

At the Supreme Court, Michigan and its allies are seeking to revive an old lawsuit, first filed in 1929, that challenged Chicago's right to divert water from the Great Lakes in order to send its sewage to the Mississippi River instead of into Lake Michigan.

The justices ruled at the time that Chicago could continue the diversion, but the suit could be reopened if other states could prove that it caused harm.

Environmental groups and Michigan officials say ecological harm is now clearly imminent, thanks to the Asian carp.

Originally imported to aid aquaculture in the South and accidentally allowed into the Mississippi River, from which they've spread continuously upstream, Asian carp are eating machines. Weighing in at up to 100 pounds, they consume up to 40 percent of their body weight daily by filter feeding on algae. Other fish can't compete with their appetites.

Their powerful bodies can also propel the carp high out of the water; they've been known to injure boaters with their acrobatics.

Cmar argues the invasive species threat can be carefully addressed with a "surgical" approach to "avoid and minimize impacts to commerce and wastewater." He said temporary lock closure and/or ecological separation would not necessarily mean that Chicago would have to send its sewage to the lake, which would require higher treatment standards and greater expense.

"To figure it out," he said, "you need a detailed understanding of how goods move through the system and how the system functions to flush Chicago wastewater toward the Mississippi."

In the meantime, Cmar said NRDC and the state of Michigan are only asking for an unbiased study on the options -- "to find the most effective way to solve the problem that balances all these competing concerns."

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based freelancer and journalism instructor at Columbia College and in a non-profit youth program. She is the author of three books, most recently "Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What it Says About ... READ MORE >