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Wednesday, March 10,2010

Great Lakes rhetoric doesn’t match reality

by Dave Dempsey
The pursuit of Great Lakes riches has begun. And so, potentially, has the sacrifice of other Great Lakes riches.

Last month’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deadline for state applications for some of the $475 million in new funds targeted at Great Lakes protection brought down a cascade of proposals on scrambling bureaucrats. Michigan alone is seeking almost $33.5 million for more than 50 different projects ranging from cleanup of toxic muds in harbors to environmental education products to be used by 1,000 teachers.


(The proposals, submitted by the new Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, seek money for specific locales such as the Kalamazoo River and Pointe Mouillee, on Lake Erie, but nothing for the Lansing area. The Grand River watershed doesn’t fit neatly into the EPA funding boxes.)


Whether the spending will result in tangible Great Lakes benefits is unclear, since the $475 million pot is being grated into little pieces of cheese, more than 100 different programs. But EPA and other federal agencies promise they will deliver something the public can see, if not taste.


It’s a pathetic irony that at the same time the money is being dished up, Illinois and Indiana are joining forces against Michigan and the remaining Great Lakes that are fighting for a long-term prevention plan to stop the fabled and imminent Asian carp invasion of the Great Lakes. And the Obama administration, at least for now, while arguing that it is mediating the states’ differences, is by all meaningful measures taking Illinois’ side.


One step forward, one step back.


When Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox filed an action with the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency order to close the canal and lock system in Chicagoland that is opening the way for carp, Illinois objected, and held off the order. Obama’s solicitor general intervened to argue the closure would be premature and unjustified.


Retired Michigan DNR fish biologist John Trimberger blasted the Obama administration for its stance on carp control. "He and his administration chose to ignore the evidence that not closing all access from the Illinois River system to Lake Michigan will hasten the arrival of Asian carp and cause billions of dollars in irreparable resource losses. It’s disappointing the administration is relying on the Army Corps of Engineers to administer the program when their track record on any environmental matter has been less than stellar."


Closing the Illinois River system would begin to undo one of the most peculiar engineering projects in American history — the reversal of the Chicago River and the blasting of a canal to connect it to the Mississippi River system, originally to flush the city’s excrement away from its Lake Michigan drinking water source and bathing beaches. Later, the locks and canals facilitated barge shipping to and from Chicago markets.


Although Cox is seeking a rehearing, for now attention has turned to a $78 million Obama-backed carp prevention plan that isn’t likely to be effective. It relies on more frequent, temporary closures of the locks and a tuneup of the electric barrier designed to shock the carp into turning around. Even that half-measure has awakened whining from the Chicago barge industry. The operators complain it will raise operating costs.


They, and others, seem to forget how much money states and the federal government have spent to clean up the Great Lakes and build a mammoth, lucrative sportfishery. That included the introduction in the 1960s by Haslett’s own Howard Tanner, then Michigan’s fish chief, of nonnative salmon to eat up nonnative alewives. Instead of rotting, stinking piles of dead alewives on Great Lakes beaches, suddenly there was angler madness every fall when salmon ran toward tributaries, producing giant trophies.


Now all that’s at risk.


Sure, fishing and environmental groups are indulging in alarmist rhetoric — everything from calling the carp “Terminator fish” and “aquatic vacuum cleaners” to warning of “Carpageddon.” But the reality is bad enough. The two species of carp that may enter (or may already have entered) the Great Lakes like to eat — a lot. Growing to 80 pounds, bighead carp devour up to 40 percent of their body weight daily. They may clean out the food web on which the salmon, lake trout and other desirable fish depend. And maybe they won’t — but if the threat is preventable, why wait to find out?


By now, it’s tiresome and redundant to say the rhetoric of politicians about Great Lakes protection doesn’t match the resulting actions. The “national treasure” that they claim they will protect for “current and future generations” is treated more like pirate booty.


But this is one of those Great Lakes issues, unlike invisible deadly toxins in air and water or slow-motion climate change, that is easy for us all to grasp. If citizens can’t drive the tough actions needed to deal with this threat, what issue can we help decide?


In this case, prevention will clearly be a lot cheaper than correction — or adaptation. Asian carp tournaments, anyone?


Hey, if nothing else, there might be tourism dollars in watching Asian carp leap up Lansing’s Brenke Fish Ladder.


(Dave Dempsey was the environmental adviser to former Gov. James Blanchard. His latest book is “Waters of Michigan.” E-mail him at Dempsey@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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