Environmental Protection Agency
HOWELL, MICHIGAN (Livingston Daily) - There were huge international celebrations when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 — and there is little doubt that it has been good for the economies of both the United States and Canada. But when it comes to the environment, it's a different story.
Since the seaway opened, the Great Lakes have been locked in a marriage with the rest of the world, thanks to the Atlantic Ocean, that has given our lakes a huge number of unwanted offspring.
That means invasive species.
Prior to the seaway, the Great Lakes had evolved its own set of life forms over the millennia when the waterway was essentially physically protected from invasion by outside species.
But that ended abruptly, once oceangoing freighters could take on ballast water loaded with non-native critters, sail up the St. Lawrence Seaway and dump their ballast in our lakes.
Earlier on came the sea lamprey, which devastated our native lake trout. Then followed spiny water fleas, gobies, zebra mussels and more. The Environmental Protection Agency lists 185 non-native species now infesting the lakes, of which at least 13 are considered "invasive," meaning doing ecological or economic harm.
Sadly, as a practical matter, neither separation nor divorce is possible. The bad environmental and economic effects of invasive species have already cost us many, many millions, and will do so for as far as we can see. Think of it as like continued psychological counseling for kids damaged by a bad marriage: The best we can do is mitigate the damage ... and prevent it from becoming worse.
Fast-forward to the Asian carp, which has traveled remorselessly up the Mississippi River and is now threatening to enter the Great Lakes via the Chicago River.
Asian carp have breached electronic barriers operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Chicago Area Waterway System. Last year Asian carp DNA was found in Lake Calumet, just six miles from Lake Michigan. We've known they were coming for a long time.
For years, lots of people have been wringing their hands about this threat — and with good reason. Once established, it's impossible to get rid of the voracious carp, who could threaten the $7 billion Great Lakes fishing and tourism industries.
Nor are they the only threat. The Army Corps of Engineers has identified 10 other species poised to invade through the Mississippi.
Back in this nation's early days, that would have been impossible. The Mississippi system ended well short of any water leading to the Great Lakes. But they were artificially connected to the Mississippi River when the flow of the Chicago River was reversed in 1900. Previously, the river flowed into the bottom of Lake Michigan.
But sewage from Chicago was getting into drinking water drawn from Lake Michigan, causing a great fear of epidemics of dysentery and cholera. So, the 28-mile Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was constructed to allow Chicago's sewage to flow into the Mississippi.
There was great rejoicing, too, when the canal was completed. Nobody ever considered the downside of linking what previously had been separate and thriving ecosystems.
Well, the downside is now painfully clear to all — though there is anything but agreement about what to do about it. Environmentalists want to put up barriers to keep the carp out; Chicago shipping interests are opposed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been studying the problem for four years — and says it will take another three years before it can reach any conclusions.
Why so long? Opinions differ on whether the corps is A) incompetent; B) hopelessly bureaucratic; C) open to political pressure or D) all of the above.
To anyone else, what needs to be done ought to be clear. To quote a new report released last month, "Physically separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds is the best long-term solution for preventing the movement of Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species, and our report demonstrates that it can be done." Those were the words of Tim Elder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, which sponsored the work.
This report was funded by private nonprofit donations, took and taking only 14 months to complete. It "demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that hydrological separation is not only feasible but cost-effective," according to Andy Buchsbaum, head of the Midwest office of the National Wildlife Federation.
The study proposes three possible separation methods, of which the most likely is one that has an estimated cost of $3 billion.
"That's a lot of money," said Buchsbaum, "but if you compare it to the repairs the Detroit sewage system (needs), it's not out of the ballpark." Not only that, but the analysis shows that keeping even one invasive species out of the Lakes would save as much as $5 billion.
Popular conclusion? You bet. Six of 10 Michiganders favor anti-carp barriers, according to an EPIC/MRA poll released last month. This is an election year, however, and things tend to stall during such times. But while all the political shouting is going on, is there something we can do right away? Yes indeed.
The National Wildlife Federation has drafted a Great Lakes pledge that all candidates for president are being asked to sign. It calls for a permanent solution to the threat of invasive species, the construction of a hydrological barrier between the lakes and the Mississippi and to maintain funding for Great Lakes restoration.
Every presidential candidate should be asked to sign the petition, including Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, now campaigning across the state before our presidential primary Tuesday. To get a copy, go to bit.ly/2012GLpledge.
This is a case where citizen involvement can actually make a big difference for us, our children and our children's children.
Copyright 2013 Livingston Daily
Updated 449 days ago Article ID# 1466148
Environmental Protection Agency