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The Asian Carp war

Why spending $830M to stop a fish sounds appealing

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JOLIET, Illinois — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made the case Tuesday to both Michigan U.S. senators and nine Michigan U.S. House members on why a 10-year, $830 million plan to jazz up the Brandon Road Lock and Dam is the best way to prevent Asian Carp, and possibly other invasive species, from entering Lake Michigan.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, who represents the Lansing area, and U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipon, who represents Eaton County, quizzed officials about the expanded technology being proposed at this choking off point on the Chicago Canal — a first-of-its-kind air bubble curtain, sound waves, more electrical barriers and a flushing system.

Col. Steven Sattinger and his team couldn’t make a 100% guarantee that the project would stop every single carp from scooting into Lake Michigan along this shipping channel. But after he outlined the exhaustive steps being proposed to stop this ravenous invasive species from swimming several hundred yards further north, it’s hard to imagine one could.

Most members walked away from today’s tour feeling much better of at least putting down the $4 million needed in the Fiscal Year 2020 federal budget to continue the study. The grand vision is to finish up everything by 2028.

“It may be expensive on the front end, in total, but nowhere near the cost if we actually have an Asian Carp problem in the lakes,” Slotkin said. “That is the disaster. The worst-case scenario. There’s a really strong feeling to get this done.”

Southern farmers imported the slippery, bottom-feeding fish to keep their retention ponds clean about 40 years ago. The foul tasting, overgrown goldfish ultimately escaped into the Mississippi River, where they’ve gobbled up the food the native fish typically eat, destroying populations of catfish and other species the river fish.

With no natural predators in the Great Lakes, the concern is that if this rapidly producing fish makes it into Lake Michigan, it will push out our walleye, trout, salmon and every other native species.

Currently, the Army Corps counts on an electrical barrier and overfishing several miles downstream to keep the carp from the single lock that connects the Mississippi River network and the Great Lakes.

Instead of closing the lock and forcing the shipping industry to port their cargo for some distance over land, the Army Corps has cooked up the following design:

An “air bubble curtain” would be built as a blockade to underwater creatures at the shipping channel’s entrance. From there, two acoustic fish deterrents pump out the equivalent of bad music for fish to chase them away.

When there are no boats around, an electrical barrier in between the offensive soundwave zones will paralyze any fish that make that far.

So even if the fish pulls a Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible” and finds a way through the bubbles, the soundwaves and the electrical current, it still needs to find a way to not get washed away in the new flushing lock the Army Corps wants to build.

Whether all the bells and whistles the Army Corps put together will cost $830 million isn’t known, yet. It’s not even known if all the bells and whistles will make the final project. That’s what the $4 million study is for.

“In the Pentagon, that’s budget dust,” Slotkin said. “Certainly, we can come together in a bipartisan fashion and get this started.”

She has a partner in Walberg, who feels confident about President Donald Trump’s background as a builder with big ideas as a reason the administration would be interested in getting behind the plan.

“It’s encouraging just to be standing here and talking about an actual construction project,” Walberg said. “I feel confident that it has to happen, so it will happen.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Hills, said he appreciated the knowledge the U.S. Army Corps put into its plans, but he remains skeptical. Are more manipulations to a manmade structure the best path forward?

“My basic view is that our species has a lot of hubris, a lot of arrogance in relation to the natural world,” he said. “If you think more broadly, we’re almost at a point where we’ve messed the planet up so much that it’s questionable whether we can recover fully.”

He questioned whether it wouldn’t be a better idea to end the shipping channel altogether, disconnect the Des Plaines River from the Chicago River and force shippers to transport their goods over land.

Former Attorney General Mike Cox championed this idea years ago, as did other members of Congress. But the costs to commerce and the shipping industry ultimately killed that idea in favor of the aforementioned creative solution.

‘”Let’s say we spend this $800 million and put all these technologies in and 30 years from now it didn’t turn out to work?” Levin said. “We’ll have felt kind of foolish that we didn’t just accept the limits of humans.”

(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS is at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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