‘Missile with Fins’ Aimed at Great Lakes
In 1900, the city of Chicago had a problem: how to get rid of all the sewage it was dumping into Lake Michigan, which also provided the city's drinking water. The solution was to build the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to divert wastewater away from the lakes, a move that famously reversed the flow of the Chicago River and created the first and only canal connecting the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River.
And therein lies the problem. More than a century later, that canal threatens to deliver an even greater evil to the Great Lakes. It's so bad that officials temporarily poisoned the waters of the canal earlier this month, making it inhospitable to aquatic life -- with the support of environmentalists, no less.
Meanwhile, the federal government has ponied up millions of dollars to ward off this potential intruder, and the state of Michigan is preparing to sue neighboring Illinois to close the canal for good.
All because of a fish.
Not just any fish, though. This is the Asian carp, weighing in at up to 100 pounds, with an appetite so voracious that it out-eats most native fish and disrupts the food web wherever it goes. It has been working its way up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers for more than a decade now, making a name for itself by leaping out of the water and colliding with unsuspecting boaters.
It's been called a "missile with fins."
The fear is that the carp will transform the Great Lakes ecosystem into something unrecognizable. One need only look at infested sections of the Illinois River, where federal environmental officials say that carp now comprise nine out of every 10 pounds of living material -- plant or animal -- found in the water. An invasion could devastate the Great Lakes' $7 billion fishing industry and harm the drinking water supply relied on by 40 million people.
"Sooner or later, those carp are going to find a breeding home" in Lake Michigan, said Joel Brammeier, acting president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago advocacy group. "And once that happens, there's going to be no stopping the Asian carp in the Great Lakes."
For many, this feels like déjà vu. Lake Michigan has been overrun by invasive species before -- most notably the zebra and quagga mussels. The mussels have filter-fed the lake to the point where its waters are remarkably clear. This allows sunlight to penetrate far deeper than before, which causes large algae blooms. Beyond altering the lake's ecosystem, this creates lush habitat for toxins such as E. coli.
Because the carp also filter feed -- up to 40 percent of their body weight daily -- there's concern that their arrival would speed this change along. Currently, invasive species in the Great Lakes are estimated to cost the region $200 million a year in lost commercial and recreational fishing revenue and in repairs to water-intake systems, which get clogged by invasive mussels.
A single, electrified barrier, nicknamed the "fish fence," is all that separates the carp-infested Illinois River from the lakes. If that barrier needs to be shut down for maintenance -- and occasionally, it does -- there's nothing to stop the intruders from making their way into the lakes.
So out of utter desperation, the canal was poisoned earlier this month while the fence was out of action. About 20 miles from Lake Michigan, a 5.5-mile stretch of water between the barrier and a lock leading into the lake was treated with rotenone, a fish poison, to kill any Asian carp lurking there -- along with any other varieties of native fish unlucky enough to be swimming nearby.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources said the state and federal agencies involved spent $3.1 million on the project. It estimates that the chemical killed about 200,000 pounds of fish, of which only one turned out to be an Asian carp.
Officials and environmentalists were relieved that large numbers of carp weren't found past the barrier -- but even just one proves that they're perilously close to the lake.
This wasn't the first sign that carp might have swum beyond the fence. The Army Corps of Engineers has been conducting DNA tests in the water past the barrier. Testing this fall showed snippets of Asian carp just eight miles from the lake.
It wasn't even a whole fish, just some biological material, but it was enough to raise the threat level -- especially when the fish fence needed to come down for maintenance this month. Many environmental groups, who normally wouldn't cheer a plan to dump poison into the water, supported the action.
"No one wants to see that," said Thom Cmar, a Chicago-based attorney with NRDC. But "the alternative is far worse."
The federal government agrees. This week, it announced that it would devote $13 million to fight the carp invasion. Most of the money will fund the Army Corps of Engineers, which is trying to cut off potential backdoor routes between the canal and the lake (such as heavy rains causing flooding that would sweep the fish into other waterways). The money will also be used to expand DNA testing as an early warning system.
As with most battles against invasive species, this situation is one of man's own making. The carp were imported to the South in the 1970s for aquaculture and wastewater treatment facilities. Their job was to keep retention ponds clean through their voracious appetites. But they escaped into the Mississippi River during flooding in the 90s and have been swimming steadily upstream ever since.
The only real solution to stopping the carp's spread, according to the state of Michigan and environmental groups, is to port a cork in the connection between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes built more than a century ago.
"The end point clearly needs to be biological separation," said Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in Ann Arbor, Mich., which focuses on protecting the lakes' fishing industry. That means finding a way that commerce between the rivers and lakes could continue -- but with sufficient measures in place to ensure that one ecosystem couldn't contaminate the other.
A spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers said all options are being explored to determine the best way to fight the carp. But various local and federal agencies in change of the waterways have set no timeline to come up with a decision. Advocates are growing frustrated with the government's deliberations in the face of what they see as an immediate threat to the lakes and the region's quality of life.
"We've already had lots of time to look at the issues," wrote Henry Henderson, director of NRDC's Midwest office, in a recent blog post. "This has been a slow-motion tragedy that requires emergency action now to buy us the time we need to solve this problem effectively."
NRDC and other environmental groups want to see the locks on the canal closed as a first step toward stopping the current threat. The Michigan attorney general's office has already announced its intention to sue the Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Illinois, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago to force the cutoff.
According to NRDC's Cmar, new technologies could end the city's reliance on the canal for its wastewater needs. But that still leaves the question of shipping; the canal has become an important conduit between the lakes and the Mississippi.
Cmar says the government could start creating intermodal facilities that would transfer cargo to trains or trucks, connecting the river with the rest of Chicago's vast transportation network while bypassing or greatly reducing the burden on the canal.
"It doesn't make sense for Chicago to still be relying on 19th century solutions," he said. Especially not when a 21st century invader is posing one of the most serious natural threats in the city's history.
Read more of OnEarth's Asian carp coverage.