Federal Invasive Species Study Too Slow

For Immediate Release: December 15, 2010

Federal Invasive Species Study Too Slow

Environmental groups call on feds to speed study and focus on permanent prevention of invasive species like Asian carp

Chicago, IL—Environmental groups and dozens of concerned citizens today called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prioritize and speed up the Chicago-area portion of its regional study of how to stop the movement of Asian carp and other invasive species between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes.

They also urged the Corps to focus on finding permanent solutions that will prevent—rather than just reduce the risk of—such invasions.

The Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) contains the only known continuous connection between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins, making it the primary pathway and highest risk for transferring invasive species between North America’s two greatest freshwater ecosystems. DNA testing has repeatedly indicated the presence of Asian carp in the CAWS, and in June, state Department of Natural Resources biologists found a live Asian carp just six miles from Lake Michigan.

“An Asian carp on Lake Michigan’s doorstep won’t kindly wait half a decade for the Army Corps to finish this essential study,” said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “The Corps should acknowledge that the Great Lakes need a permanent solution—before Asian carp cross the threshold—and should condense the study timeline for the Chicago area to 18 months.”

The Corps heard similar concerns from many attending a public meeting in Chicago today, the first of 10 meetings the Corps is hosting to solicit comment on its planned “Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin study” or “GLMRIS,” which was ordered by Congress as part of the 2007 Water Resources Development Act. The act instructed the Corps to study options to “prevent the spread of aquatic nuisance species between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basins through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and other pathways.”

“This is a prevention study and its results should be used first to prevent Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes,” said Max Muller, Program Director at Environment Illinois. “The study must be structured to yield a solution before breeding populations of Asian carp establish themselves in the Great Lakes.”

“Time is of the essence in the effort to save our Great Lakes from the Asian Carp,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. “We need a permanent solution that ends the need for killing fish in the Chicago River system and protects our Great Lakes forever, and we have months, not years, to plan for that solution.”

But while Congress directed the Corps to study ways “to prevent” invasive species transfer, a new November Corps planning document instead describes the study’s objective as “the prevention or reduction of the risk” of invasive species transfer.

Including risk-reducing measures expands the scope of the study beyond physically separating the waterways to include legal and political controls (the Corps lists “laws with fines for importing” invasive species as an example) and controls to modify invasive species behavior, prompting them to avoid certain aquatic areas (“such as air bubble curtains, thermal barriers, electric barriers, chemical barriers, low dissolved oxygen barriers and predation”).

“Deplorably, the Corps has decided to spend precious time and resources to also study ways to ‘reduce the risk of,’ not just prevent invasive species,” said Clark Bullard of Prairie River Network. “That’s not what was authorized by Congress, nor is it a credible strategy that will protect our Great Lakes.”

“Researching risk reductions will likely divert resources from quickly determining how to achieve prevention,” said Jennifer Nalbone, Director of Navigation and Invasive Species for Great Lakes United. “Physically separating the Great Lakes from the Mississippi would achieve that. There is very likely no other alternative to achieve prevention.”

“The Corps is already reducing the risk of carp getting into the Lake—but nowhere near aggressively enough. Their new study plan appears to be weighted in favor of maintaining the status quo,” said Thom Cmar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Asian carp are only the latest in a stream of non-native invaders, including zebra mussels and round gobies, that have moved between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River via the CAWS.

Severing the artificial Mississippi River-Great Lakes connection would require modifications to the series of canals, locks and channels—collectively known as the CAWS—which Chicago built more than 100 years ago to reverse the flow of its namesake river to deal with its sewage and protect Lake Michigan drinking water. The CAWS has also allowed for the movement of goods through the city and region. But it also diverted massive amounts of water away from the Great Lakes and allowed the city to postpone a sustainable solution to deal with its sewage problems, in addition to serving as virtual expressway for invasive species.

If done right, however, environmentalists note that building a physical barrier between the two waters could involve investments in new infrastructure in the Chicago area—not only closing an invasive species pathway, but also enhancing Chicago’s transportation, sewage treatment, and flood control, creating jobs, and improving water quality, tourism, and recreation.

Some members of Congress clearly want the Corps to prioritize prevention over risk reduction. On May 24, thirteen Great Lakes U.S. Senators sent an open letter calling on the Senate to direct the Corps to expedite a study of how to build a physical barrier between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes. At the end of June, Great Lakes members of Congress introduced House and Senate bills to compel the Corps to complete such a study within 18 months (Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin is a cosponsor of the Senate bill).

Environmental groups at today’s meeting also called for the Corps to create twice yearly opportunities for public dialog with the study’s technical staff. They also urged the Corps to avoid wasting time and money repeating research that has already been undertaken.

Public comment on the Corps plan ends March 31.

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For More Information, Contact:

Alliance for the Great Lakes: Joel Brammeier, 773-590-6494
Environment Illinois: Max Muller, 312-869-2629
Freshwater Future: Cheryl Mendoza, 231-571-5001
Great Lakes United: Jennifer Nalbone, 716-213-0408
National Wildlife Federation: Marc Smith, 734-255-5413
Natural Resources Defense Council: Josh Mogerman, 312-651-7909
Prarie Rivers Network: Clark Bullard, 217-898-4112
Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter: Jack Darin, 847-651-0825