Michigan sues to protect Great Lakes from Asian carp

Michigan wants to take steps to keep carp like these from invading the Great Lakes, which has sparked a debate about ecology and business.
Michigan wants to take steps to keep carp like these from invading the Great Lakes, which has sparked a debate about ecology and business. (Nerissa Michaels/associated Press)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009

The reversal of the Chicago River a century ago, to send the city's sewage to the Mississippi River instead of into Lake Michigan, was hailed as an engineering marvel. Now Michigan is suing Illinois to potentially re-reverse the river to prevent the movement of voracious, invasive Asian carp into the lake.

The suit, which is going to the Supreme Court, also challenges Chicago's controversial withdrawal of up to 2 billion gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan.

Environmental groups have long called for the ecological separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River basin to curb the spread of invasive species and to retain Great Lakes water in the Great Lakes basin. It is estimated the Chicago diversion has lowered lakes Michigan and Huron by three inches.

The Chicago River was reversed by connecting it through a system of canals to rivers whose waters flow into the Mississippi. Varying degrees of ecological separation could be achieved by closing the canals: using sluice gates to allow lake water to flow but blocking fish or boats; or using measures such as bubble or sound "curtains," chemicals or electricity to limit the movement of fish and smaller organisms.

Since 2002, the Army Corps of Engineers has run an electric barrier in the canal to block Asian carp. But tests by the University of Notre Dame and the Nature Conservancy in the fall found Asian carp DNA beyond the barrier near Lake Michigan, indicating that it might have failed to keep the voracious fish at bay.

If Asian carp make it into the Great Lakes, environmentalists and policymakers say, they could wipe out plankton that makes up the base of the food chain, severely impacting fishing and lake-based tourism.

"It's a matter of self-defense economically and ecologically for Michigan," said Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox.

Michigan's suit, filed Dec. 21, reopens a 1922 lawsuit filed by Great Lakes states challenging Chicago's right to divert water. That suit resulted in a consent decree limiting the amount of water Chicago sends to the Mississippi. Michigan's suit also calls for a preliminary injunction to force the temporary closure of locks, used for flood control and navigation.

"They've been saying they have this under control, but they really don't, and they're going back to the status quo," said John Sellek, a spokesman for the Michigan attorney general. "Their primary interest is keeping the waterway open, keeping that barge traffic on the canals. But Michigan's interest is far larger than that. The Great Lakes fishing industry is worth $7 billion all by itself, let alone the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are connected to the Great Lakes."

The Corps of Engineers and other federal, state and local authorities would probably be involved in closing the canals or other ecological separation measures, which could also be mandated through legislation.

If the canals were closed, barges could not travel from the Mississippi River into the Great Lakes. Freight would probably have to be transferred to trucks or rail cars and carried over land to Great Lakes ports. That would be a costly undertaking.

The national industry group for barge operators, which opposes closing the locks, says about a quarter-million truck trailers' worth of goods make the passage annually on barges. But national environmental groups say the potential economic impact of Asian carp and other invasive species in the Great Lakes make freight reconfiguration worth the cost.

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