GREAT LAKES:

Carp summit yields no commitments on lock closures

Obama administration officials emerged from yesterday's White House summit on Asian carp touting a $78.5 million, 25-point plan to prevent the spread of the ravenous fish into Lake Michigan, but without a permanent plan for the Chicago-area locks at the center of an ongoing lawsuit between Illinois and the other Great Lakes states.

The two navigational locks -- the O'Brien Lock and Dam in the Calumet-Sag Channel and the Chicago Controlling Works in the Illinois River -- have become the nexus of the battle over Asian carp, a grouping of four species that have invaded much of the Mississippi River and now threaten to establish a population in the world's largest freshwater ecosystem.

The fight over lock closures has become particularly fierce because each side claims irreparable damage if the other side's demands are accommodated. Illinois says closing the locks would cripple Chicago's shipping industry and restrict waterways used by recreational boats. Other Great Lakes states, led by Michigan, say allowing the carp to establish a population in the Great Lakes could devastate a $7 billion fishery industry and damage a $9 billion boating industry.

Federal officials vowed yesterday to institute "reduced openings" of the locks, adding that they would examine the possibility of permanently severing the connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi. Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not yet made a choice on the logistics of lock closures and said she could not provide a timeline for a decision.

"We are considering every alternative to keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, and closing the locks is one of those alternatives," said Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, at the conclusion of the talks. "There are other pathways for the Asian carp to get into the Great Lakes ... so closing just those two structures would not necessarily be the silver bullet that we're all looking for."

Organized by Sutley, the summit included officials from U.S. EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Interior Department. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) were in attendance, while Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) participated in the summit by telephone.

Granholm said yesterday she was "disappointed" the administration would not agree to a temporary closure of the locks. "We have to prevent Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes, but the proposal presented still leaves the lakes vulnerable to this threat," she said.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox (R), who filed the Supreme Court lawsuit in December, issued a statement last week comparing reduced openings to "keeping criminals in jail four days a week and hoping the other three days go well." Federal officials have suggested closing the locks for days or weeks at a time, opening them periodically to allow freight to pass through.

Noah Hall, a Great Lakes expert at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, said that sort of compromise on lock closures is insufficient because it could only delay the spread of Asian carp.

"All that's going to do is inconvenience the barge traffic," Hall said. "It's very popular to talk about policy in terms of compromise, but unfortunately, this is a very difficult issue to take that kind of position. Either there's separation, and you keep the carp out, or there's not, and you let the carp in."

The Asian Carp Control Strategy Framework, which was unveiled after the talks, largely includes directives for the use of existing agency funding and projects already under way. Those include a $13.2 million plan to build barriers between the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Des Plaines River, intended to prevent fish from bypassing an existing electric barrier during floods. Plans are also in place to spend $10.5 million on a third electrified barrier in the Chicago area.

Some new funding for projects will come from the $475 million appropriated by Congress for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative this year. That includes $3 million for "commercial development" -- in other words, thinning out carp populations by getting people to eat the fish.

The other Great Lakes states will press forward with a Supreme Court lawsuit aimed at forcing the administration to close the locks. That lawsuit was not discussed during yesterday's talks, Darcy said.

Cox, who is running for governor, filed the lawsuit after new tests suggested that carp had crossed one of the electric fish barriers, coming within six miles of Lake Michigan. Joined by Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario, he asked the Supreme Court to reopen a 90-year-old case dating back to the construction of the waterways.

The Supreme Court last month rejected a request for a preliminary injunction that would have forced the closure of the locks while the court weighs the case. The justices will rule later on the merits of the Asian carp lawsuit, but no date has yet been announced.

Cox filed another request for an injunction earlier this month, claiming the matter had become more urgent in light of a new test that detected carp DNA in Lake Michigan. The court did not take that test into account because it was released the same day as its decision on the injunction (E&ENews PM, Feb. 4).

Though searches have yet to turn up a single living Asian carp beyond electrified barriers in Chicago-area waterways, administration officials said yesterday, Cox's camp has continued to depict the locks as ground zero in the fight against invasive species.

"President Obama proved today that he'll do anything to protect the narrow interests of his home state of Illinois, even if it means destroying Michigan's economy," Cox said in a statement yesterday. "Officials from his administration unveiled a 25 step 'plan' full of half-measures and gimmicks, when keeping Asian carp from devastating the Great Lakes $7 billion fishery requires only one step -- immediately closing the locks."

Although the federal government is officially closed today, the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee plans to hold its scheduled hearing on Asian carp at 2 p.m. The hearing will examine the likelihood of a carp invasion and what such an invasion could mean for the Great Lakes. Speakers at the hearing will include Cameron Davis, U.S. EPA's senior adviser on the Great Lakes (E&E Daily, Feb. 8).

Click here to read the Asian carp control framework released yesterday.