Replumbing Chicago to Keep Carp Out

  • These fish get big. They eat a lot, and if they get into the Great Lakes, people worry they'll swallow up the food web. (Photo by the USFWS)

You might recall that Michigan got a kind of asian carp scare a few weeks back. Biologists found one asian carp near Chicago, past an electric barrier that was supposed to keep them away from Lake Michigan. They worry if carp make it to the Great Lakes and rivers in Michigan, they could crowd out native fish. Congress worries the barrier might not be enough and it wants a more permanent solution. Shawn Allee reports that won’t happen anytime soon.

“Eco-Sep” – The Corps of Engineers’ Study

Brush up on your Asian Carp Knowledge

More on the Electric Barriers


Joel Brammeier’s with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an advocacy group. When I meet him, I expect him to be completely freakin’ out, since just a few weeks ago biologists found one live Asian carp on the Great Lakes side of the electric carp barrier. That’s the, um, wrong side of the barrier, since we want Asian carp to stay on the other side, the side closer to the Mississippi. Anyway, Brammeier’s is either a good actor, or maybe he actually feels OK, since now other people, the right people, are freakin’ out, too. Those would be people in Congress.

“We’ve seen over the past few months, more energy devoted to predicting and preventing a crisis to the Great Lakes than I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Brammeier says Congress doubts that electric barriers, poisons, or other gadgets will keep the carp out of Lake Michigan for good, so there’s talk about the mack daddy of Asian carp prevention: hydrological separation. This just means cutting off canals that connect Lake Michigan to rivers that head west. That’d make it impossible for carp to swim to the Lake.

“I think what folks are realizing now is that the only way to achieve that is physical separation between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. That’s easy to say, but it’s incredably difficult to conceptualize how that happens.”

Brammeier says the good news is that back in 2007, Congress already asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to figure all this out. The bad news is that the study’s moving too slow for Congress. The Army Corps was planning to finish its proposal in, say, five years. Tomorrow, a U.S. Senate committee will debate asking the Corps to speed things up. They want the study finished in less than two years.

“Twelve to eighteen months with the right people, the right funding and leadership strikes me as a generous amount of time to get the answers we need.  It’s simply a matter of prioritization.”

“To do that in 18 months in my and my team’s opinion is not a reasonable assumption.”

This is Dave Wethington. He’s in charge of the study for the Army Corps of Engineers. Wethington says the real issue isn’t whether the Corps can propose some way of separating Lake Michigan from rivers that head west. He says it can do that. It’s that that there’s a lot to consider.

“What kind of impacts could there be to commercial shipping, passenger boats, recreational boats. What kind of flood risk could there be, to the Chicago area specifically.”

None of this is enough for some Michigan congressmen. Representative Dave Camp is from the 4th district.

“The problem is that it’s taking far too long. This will speed that up. What we’re trying to bring is this sense of urgency to the problem that, frankly, the bureacrats don’t get.”

Camp admits even if he gets his study eighteen months from now, he’d still have a problem. Re-jiggering the water canals around Chicago won’t be cheap, and there’d probably be a fight over that, too. Still, he says he’d rather have that fight sooner rather than later. After all, we might still have time to stop the carp’s invasion, but we’re pressing our luck if we wait too long.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

By the way, we still don’t know where that carp that was caught beyond the electric barrier came from.  Scientists are using DNA tests to figure out whether it just swam through the barrier or whether someone released it into the wild. Biologists say that happens from time to time.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.