Army Corps at odds on Great Lakes plan
More exotic species, loss of habitat and other environmental
problems could result from an Army Corps of Engineer's
plan to dredge bigger channels and ports from the St.
Lawrence Seaway to Duluth, according to some environmental
The Corps' "Reconnaissance Report: Great Lakes Navigation
System Review " is a draft proposal to increase the size
of ships that can navigate Great Lake's waters.
Groups such as Great Lakes United and the National Wildlife
Federation oppose the plan, or call for at least an independent
review of the proposal before it goes any farther.
The ACOE plan will determine the feasibility of deepening
ports and connecting channels on the Great Lakes to allow
access of Panamax-sized ships into the basin.
This means dredging 35-foot deep channels and widening
some areas from Montreal to Duluth to allow the bigger
The National Wildlife Federation opposes the project for
"We think there's not an economic justification and a
potential for great environmental damage," said NWF director
of water resources Tim Eder.
First there are the direct effects like dredging, which
could stir up contaminated sediments. Many port areas
have sediments contaminated with PCBs, mercury and other
Dredging and widening channels will also cause direct
habitat loss for fish and waterfowl, Eder said.
Another problem is that of exotic species. Critters like
the zebra mussel and round goby invaded the Great Lakes
by being brought in the ballast water of ships. Zebra
mussels have caused millions of dollars of economic damage
by clogging industrial and municipal pipes.
Eder said larger and more ships would mean more problems
with exotic species. There has been work on trying to
stop that problem, for example, by having ships exchange
their ballast water in the ocean before entering the St.
Lawrence Seaway. But that has not completely stopped the
"We don't think it makes any sense to increase shipping
until we get a handle on the situation," Eder said.
Another potential problem, Eder said, is lowering lake
levels. By dredging deeper channels, flow will increase,
causing lower lake levels through the chain.
There are legitimate reasons to study the navigation system
of the Great Lakes, he said. The locks are aging and repairs
or upgrades are necessary. However, Eder said the Corps
is going way beyond merely fixing what's broken.
Wayne Schloop, project manager for the ACOE in Detroit,
said the study is still in its preliminary stages. The
draft study was completed in June and sent to ACOE headquarters,
which will review it.
If approved there, the Corps would then look to Congress
to fund a more detailed feasibility study, which would
look in detail at economic impacts, environmental impacts
and engineering aspects of the proposal.
Schloop countered the NWF concerns.
As far as lower lake levels, he said they would not deepen
channels without corresponding mitigation. They would
have to maintain the status quo as far as lake levels
are concerned, he said.
Schloop agrees that invasive exotic species are a problem,
and it's something they've solicited help on from the
environmental community. He said they can continue to
work on solutions of exchanging and treating ballast water.
Schloop said the Corps would test sediments before dredging,
and determine if they were contaminated and feasible to
Like any other agency, they would have to follow state
and federal environmental guidelines when dealing with
The benefits of the proposal could be increased trade,
Schloop said. The navigation system is getting old. The
locks in the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls,
were built in the 1930s. The locks in the Seaway are about
45 years old.
Like any other transportation system, it needs to be upgraded
occasionally, Schloop said.
The next step for the proposal, if headquarters approves
it, is potentially partnering with Canada, since many
locks and channels are sometimes jointly owned. He said
they should have a response from headquarters by fall.
Eder and others hope to stop the plan before it gets to
the next step. He said the feasibility study itself would
cost about $20 million.
The decision on funding the feasibility study could come
next month. Congress will decide whether to appropriate
funds in the Water Resources Development Act, which would
allow the draft study to move on to the full feasibility
stage. In Canada, the federal government will decide whether
to be the study co-sponsor and contribute a match to the
Schloop said it was too early to determine a price tag
of the improvements, should the study go ahead. The draft
report mentions a "ballpark" construction figure of $10
billion, just to replace 15 locks at the Welland Canal
and St. Lawrence River.
Besides the potential environmental impacts, the economic
benefits of the plan might be overstated, according to
Jennifer Nalbone, habitat biodiversity coordinator for
Great Lakes United.
GLU is a coalition of organizations from the United States
and Canada concerned with the long-term health of the
Nalbone talked about the Corps project recently at the
Council Lodge on the Bad River Reservation.
She said the economics part of the study is flawed. The
Corps is using the same methodology they used in a study
of navigation for the Upper Mississippi, which was criticized
in an independent review by the National Academy of Sciences.
"So we're going to find that the economics for the Great
Lakes study is flawed as well," Nalbone said.
She said it's likely that attracting larger vessels would
only attract trade from other United States and Canadian
ports, that there would be no net gain for the economy.
And that would happen "at the expense of the health of
the Great Lakes," she said.
The GLU, like the NWF, would like The NAS or some other
group to perform an independent review of the Corps draft
Nalbone agrees that the Great Lakes navigation system
is ageing and needs to be looked at, but like Eder, she
said the Corps is only looking at one option.
GLU has proposed other options which include repairing
or replacing locks, without deepening channels and ports.
The Corps has not even taken into consideration economic
effects on the fishing industry of letting in more exotic
GLU wrote to the Corps and made specific recommendations,
•The "wider, deeper channels" intent be abandoned immediately
•The Corps focus its efforts on studying how to reduce
the overall impact of shipping trade on the Great Lakes-
St. Lawrence River ecosystem
•The feasibility of restricting foreign ships to the lower
reaches of the St. Lawrence River be examined
Eder said they hope the Corps study does not get funded
for the next step.
"It's not a good use of our tax money," he said. "We don't
think Congress should fund this study, congress should
To find more information
For more information on the Army Corps of Engineer's Reconnaissance
Report: Great Lakes Navigation System Review, see the
• ACOE's Detroit District: www.lre.usace.army.mil/index.cfm?chn_id=1081
• Great Lakes United: www.glu.org/
• National Wildlife Federation: www.nwf.org/