Carp barrier may prove vulnerable
Backup shield is sought for lakes
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published April 26, 2006
The Army Corps of Engineers will flip the switch on a new $7 million electric carp barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal on May 8. The same day, the agency is scheduled to turn off the juice on an old barrier, something Great Lakes advocates say is foolish.
An electrified swath of canal is the federal government's last chance to stop an invasion of Asian carp, which have been migrating north up the Mississippi River basin since they escaped their southern fish farms more than a decade ago.
The problem is that the carp, which can grow to a wolf-sized 100 pounds and gobble up to 40 pounds of plankton per day, would overrun the world's largest freshwater ecosystem - and the multibillion-dollar commercial and recreational fishery that it supports.
The worry is that the new barrier is actually only a half-finished job. Only one of two planned electrified fields has been constructed. Engineers still intend to construct a second "array" as part of the new barrier, but they've run out of money and still need an additional $6 million or so to finish the job.
The hope is that the old barrier could be used as a backup to the single array on the new barrier until money can be secured to build a second array.
"We've long argued there needs to be a layer of redundancy on that canal, and it makes little sense to turn off a barrier that works," said Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.
The cost to keep the old barrier running is estimated at $1,800 per month.
Now the race is on to shake that relatively modest sum from the proposed $2.8 trillion federal budget. On Monday, a bipartisan group of Great Lakes senators introduced legislation to continue to pay the electricity bill on the old barrier, but lawmakers would have to move unusually fast, given that the old barrier is slated to be turned off in less than two weeks.
The old barrier has been operating since the spring of 2002. It is not designed to kill migrating fish, but to repel them with an electric shock.
Asian carp have been found about 20 miles downstream from the barrier zone on the canal, which itself is about 25 miles southwest of the Lake Michigan shoreline.
There are also questions about who will pay the electricity bill for the new barrier, which could approach $20,000 per month. The Great Lakes states contend it should fall to the federal government, but so far the Corps of Engineers has yet to get the funds to run it long-term. A separate piece of legislation has been introduced to provide federal funding to operate and maintain the new barrier, and to refurbish and continue to operate the old barrier
The corps intends to cover operation costs of the new barrier for the next several months, but if Congress does not authorize the corps to permanently operate it, the burden could fall to the State of Illinois, the corps' local partner in the project.
"Illinois' capacity to deal with that is a question," said Gaden.
Meanwhile, members of the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council have been seeking donations to cover the electricity bill for the old barrier if the government won't.
"We've got enough money for maybe a month," said a flabbergasted Dan Thomas, president of the council. "The bottom line is that we can't afford to let these critters into the Great Lakes. They will probably have the single most devastating impact of any invasive species."
That is subject to debate, because the Great Lakes are now home to more than 180 non-native species, some of which, including invasive mussels, alewives and sea lampreys, have already largely destroyed the lakes' native food chain.
Fishing, however, remains wildly popular on the big lakes, due largely to stocking programs for non-native salmon and trout.