Carping about Great Lakes: Congress has gone fishing
Published December 7, 2006
Anyone who cares about fish, take note: Sport and commercial fishing throughout the entire Great Lakes is at total risk because of politics and gridlock in Washington. This is an industry worth more than $7 billion annually — and involves four million recreational boats.
The main culprits are carp — and Congress. Specifically, Asian Silver Carp, originally imported from China to eat the muck from fish farm ponds. These fish are now working their way up the Mississippi River toward Lake Michigan. They consume as much as 20 percent of their weight in plankton per day, and grow to more than 100 pounds. Every fishery expert agrees that if they ever get into the Great Lakes, they could completely wipe out the ecosystem that supports trout, salmon and virtually everything else living in the largest body of pure fresh water on the globe.
The only thing standing between the carp and the Great Lakes is an experimental electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, about 25 miles downstream from Lake Michigan.
Installed four years ago, it repels fish by firing pulses of electricity through cables strung along the bottom. But the original barrier is failing and prone to blackouts. A new one was supposed to be in place last year. But engineers are worried that so much electricity pumped into the canal might set off explosions in the heavy barge and shipping traffic. While they struggled with the problem, money to finish the new electronic barrier ran out. The price tag to complete the project is now estimated at around $10 million.
That's all it would cost to save the Great Lakes. To put it in perspective — $10 million is one percent of what the government spends in Iraq per day! And everybody — the U.S. government; the Senate and the House; Great Lakes governors; and countless environmentalists and fishermen — has known about this for years!
"This is our Katrina," says Andy Buchsbaum, the director of the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation.
"We can see it coming. And we can actually stop it. It would be absolute folly to do nothing."
But, alas, nothing is what's been going on in a bizarre and outrageous tangle of science, engineering, money, politics and Washington gridlock. Nothing could happen until the Army Corps of Engineers figured out how to solve the electricity problem.
Nothing now can be done, when the old barrier is failing and the new, more effective barrier can't be turned on.
Nothing can be done until the $10 million to pay for design, construction and operation of barriers against the carp can be authorized and appropriated by the U.S. Congress.
The legislative vehicle for the money is the gigantic, pork-laden Water Resources Development Bill (WRDA), which has been sitting around for years, untouched by any prospect of passage.
Meanwhile, the bill is under the jurisdiction of the House Transportation Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the author of the "bridge to nowhere" appropriation.
He's the man who fought to build a $315 million bridge to an Alaskan island with fewer than 50 people, while Congress stalls on $10 million to save the Great Lakes.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
The congressional Great Lakes Task Force, made up of members from the states around the lakes, has been urging the committee for four years to authorize money to fix the old barrier, design and build the new one and operate both.
Nothing has happened. How come? Because language authorizing the money is part of the WRDA bill, which in turn is stalled because of disagreement between the House and the Senate.
I'm told there is no chance whatsoever that this bill will be passed by the lame-duck Congress this year.
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, himself an avid fisherman, is furious. "I am outraged that the permanent Asian Carp barrier has been held hostage for the past few years," Dingell told me. "We simply cannot afford to have this creature get into our precious Great Lakes and create havoc. We must see that the barrier becomes a reality just as soon as possible."
So what to do? His fellow Democrat, U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, who represents the Upper Peninsula and much of northern lower Michigan, is drafting a bill that would gain the authorization to spend the $10 million needed to put the barrier in place.
Maybe it passes, maybe it doesn't.
The National Wildlife Federation's Buchsbaum says the current thought is to separate the carp barrier from the stalled bill by introducing next year a bill authorizing $10 million to upgrade the temporary barrier, build the new barrier and operate both.
There may be renewed hope. Democrats will control Congress next year, giving Dingell and Stupak more clout. And the new chairman of the Transportation Committee will be Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, whose district borders Lake Superior. He understands the implications of doing nothing.
Here's hoping. But there is a deeper meaning in messes like this, where an obvious problem could be fixed by an equally obvious solution. This story demonstrates that we have created a political system in this country that is simply unable to work effectively.
And that leaves us all very much in peril.
Phil Power is a longtime observer of politics, economics and education issues in Michigan, and was a regent of the University of Michigan from 1987 to 1999. He is also president and founder of The Center for Michigan, a moderate think-and-do tank. These opinions and others expressed in his columns are his own and do not in any way represent official policy positions of The Center for Michigan. Phil would be pleased to hear from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.