Whitmer, DNR chief question Army Corps’ Asian carp plan

By: - February 28, 2019 11:56 pm
Asian carp

At Big Muddy National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, an invasive Asian carp leaps high out of the water to escape biologists’ nets. | Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to act quickly and install new barriers to a critical waterway where Asian carp could enter the Great Lakes.

While praising the proposed “multiple technologies” that would keep invasive fish out of the Great Lakes, the governor questioned ballooning construction cost estimates in a Feb. 22 letter to Joseph Redican, planning chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Gretchen Whitmer

Whitmer wrote that she supports its proposal for an electric, sound and “bubble” barrier at the Brandon Road lock, which separates the Chicago River from the Great Lakes while still allowing ships to pass through.

But the governor noted that “unfortunately, our time is running out,” with documented Asian carp found nine miles from Lake Michigan, which threaten devastation to the Great Lakes economy and ecosystem.

“Michigan’s tourism industry and the hundreds of thousands of jobs it supports depend on the preservation of our water, but right now, an increasing number of Asian carp are being detected near Brandon Road, and it’s putting the future of our Great Lakes, our economy and Michiganders’ well-being at risk,” Whitmer wrote.

At a December meeting at the White House before she was sworn in as governor, Whitmer talked with President Donald Trump about the Asian carp threat. Whitmer again spoke last weekend with Trump about the Great Lakes, along with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, she told the Advance.

After the draft is completed, the corps will need to submit a final report to Congress, which is anticipated this spring. But if everything goes according to plan, construction for the new barriers isn’t expected to be finished until 2028.

The Great Lakes support a $7 billion fishing industry, a $16 billion boating industry and a $20 billion tourism industry, the governor’s office noted in a press release.

“If invasive carp were to enter the Great Lakes basin, the consequences would be irreversible and costly,” wrote Department of Natural Resources Director Daniel Eichinger in a separate letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The estimated cost for the fish barrier technologies have meanwhile more than doubled, from roughly $275 million to nearly $778 million, according to Whitmer’s office. Much of the increase stems from a “contingency” costs.

Crews search for invasive Asian carp near Chicago , Aug. 2, 2011, following several recent discoveries of their genetic material in Lake Calumet.| U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Jessica Vandrick, Wikimedia Commons

The barriers would include technology that would shock fish with electricity, shoot bothersome noise through the water and create disturbances with a system that injects air bubbles into the water through a jet system.

It’s like a “fish disco,” said Molly Flanagan, vice president for the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Only the fish hopefully won’t live to swim another dance.

Molly Flanagan

Flanagan’s group had supported permanently separating the Mississippi River basin from the Great Lakes to make sure no Asian carp find their way into Lake Michigan. Other environmentalists had pushed for the same plan.

But that idea was opposed by the shipping industry. The current preliminary proposal is the result of a compromise that allows vessels to move through the Brandon Road lock while still “acting against Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes,” Flanagan said.

She called the plan “a really good start” but said the corps needs to move “as quickly as possible” and “look at other protections and technologies” to bolster security.

The director of the U.S. Great Lakes Shipping Association did not immediately return a call and an email to the Michigan Advance.

Whitmer and Eichinger urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to act quickly and consider further protective barriers while looking into ways to cut costs.

Lake Michigan | Susan J. Demas

The DNR director also praised aspects of the plan, but said “there are many uncertainties surrounding the operation of the electric barrier.” He questioned how effective the sound barrier will be and pressed the corps to consider “a door or porous gate that could allow water to pass but exclude fish from entered the structured channel.”

Eichinger’s letter also called the cost increase “very concerning” and questioned why the channel has to be designed with a 500-year flood specification.

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.