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Plan to block Asian carp carries $3B price tag
Updated 1/31/2012 12:28 PM ET
DETROIT — A privately funded study to be released Tuesday outlines three ways the Chicago waterways could be closed off from the Great Lakes to keep invasive species, such as Asian carp, from moving between them.

The cheapest solution would cost taxpayers more than $3 billion and would take at least a decade to complete.

The study, which cost $2 million and was funded by several foundations, says separating the two watersheds would create jobs and could end up being cheaper than spending money every year to fight invasive species.

MORE: Asian carp documentary by Detroit Free Press STORY: EPA swamped by funding requests for Great Lakes STORY: Miss. flooding may have spread invasive fish

The engineering study proposes one to five new barriers near Chicago, rerouting cargo and pleasure boats, and building huge tunnels to handle floodwaters that could no longer go into Lake Michigan.

Funding would need to come from Congress. More than $80 million has been spent fighting Asian carp in the past two years from federal Great Lakes funds; the fight against invasive sea lamprey costs $20 million per year.

Some scientists fear Asian carp could take over the Great Lakes if they were able to get into Lake Michigan in sufficient numbers.

A similar study by the Army Corps of Engineers is due in late 2015.

Still, whether Congress is willing to foot the multibillion-dollar bill for stopping invasive species is unknown.

"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," said Tim Eder, executive director of the commission.

He and others fear that Asian carp, in particular, could cause irreversible, expensive damage to the Great Lakes if they get in. Asian carp have made their way slowly up the Mississippi River; the population is now held back by a series of three electric barriers south of Chicago.

The study is the first to detail alternatives and peg the costs to separate the watersheds.

It presents three alternatives, costing from $3.3 billion to $9.5 billion, that would reroute barge traffic, which now can get to Lake Michigan easily, and require boat lifts for tour and pleasure boats, whose existing access to Lake Michigan from docks and marinas south of Chicago would end.

Flooding around Chicago is controlled now by sending storm-water overflows into Lake Michigan, which would also end; new tunnels to carry the storm water elsewhere would have to be built as part of the project.

Project funding

The money for the fixes would likely have to come from Congress, although some could come from sewer customers around Chicago or barge operators, both of whom would benefit, the study said.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., co-sponsored a measure in Congress to push the Army Corps to take quicker action against Asian carp. The corps is conducting its own study on stopping invasive species, including separation, but won't be finished until late 2015, at the earliest.

She said the new study shows quicker action is possible.

"This report was completed in about a year," she said in a statement. "We cannot afford inaction."

An attempt in Congress a year ago to close Chicago-area locks to keep out carp failed in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, said she thinks the new study brings fresh ammunition to the debate.

Miller said she hopes the study will help persuade supporters of Chicago interests, including the barge and tour boat industries, that closing off the waterways is necessary.

"I think of myself as fiscally conservative, but the expense argument is a wash because of the millions of dollars in negative economic impact that would happen to the Great Lakes if the Asian carp get in," Miller said.

Plan called 'ludicrous'

Barge operators, tour boat captains whose boats ply the Chicago River and the Lake Michigan coastline, and owners of small boats in the area are still likely to oppose any changes.

The biggest problem with the study is that it blocks only one pathway that Asian carp and other species can move between the watersheds, said Mark Biel, executive director of Unlock Our Jobs, a coalition of barge operators and others fighting the changes.

"Shutting down this one multibillion-dollar transportation route does not even address the 18 other waterways in and out of the Great Lakes that could serve as entry points for invasive species," he said. "Calling this a solution is ludicrous."

Dozens of pathways

There are other ways for Asian carp to get into the Great Lakes.

An Army Corps study has shown more than a dozen pathways other than those near Chicago through which Asian carp and other invasive species can get into or out of Lake Michigan.

Undertaking a huge rerouting of the Chicago waterways would modernize the region, the study argues.

"This is a unique opportunity for both protection of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River and for a Chicago waterway system for the 21st Century and beyond," said David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which joined the Great Lakes Commission in the study.

Posted 1/31/2012 9:45 AM ET
Updated 1/31/2012 12:28 PM ET
Studies aim to find ways to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp.
AP file photo
Studies aim to find ways to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp.