Videos show fish swimming through barrier meant to stop Asian carp

Chicago — U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Brig. Gen. Margaret Burcham is quite comfortable that the threat of a Great Lakes Asian carp invasion is under control.

“We’ve got our electric barrier,” she said before a Jan. 9 public hearing on the Army Corps’ new study that says it will take at least a quarter-century to erect barriers to block the rapacious fish from swimming into Lake Michigan. “And we’re confident that it is doing the job.”

No, it is not.

Not if you believe a video obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that was taken by federal biologists last summer. Just one 3-minute clip reveals dozens of little fish swimming upstream through the swath of electrified water on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, only about 35 miles downstream from Chicago’s lakeshore.

The Army Corps has long argued that its fish-shocking contraption is an adequate bandage that buys the agency time to figure out how to surgically close the ecological wound opened by Chicago’s sewage canal system more than a century ago. Chicago dug the canals to reverse the flow of its namesake river — and the city’s sewage along with it — away from Lake Michigan, the city’s drinking water source.

The only thing holding back the Asian carp at the moment is the electric barrier, but few people beyond Illinois politicians, the canal-dependent barge industry and the Army Corps are buying the idea that the barrier is doing its job. Many worry the agency’s continued confidence in this leaky, last line of defense will take a tragic toll on the Great Lakes, the world’s largest freshwater system.

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Federal officials continue feedback sessions on Asian Carp

TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan — The federal government could more quickly implement a plan to keep the Great Lakes free of Asian carp if the region’s citizens and elected officials agreed on the best approach to take, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official said Thursday.

The Corps has been accused of dragging its feet since releasing a report this month listing eight options for preventing the voracious carp and other invasive species from moving between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River watershed through Chicago-area rivers and canals. Several of the alternatives carry price tags exceeding $15 billion and would require 25 years to complete.

Dozens of speakers, from U.S. senators to sport fishermen, endorsed that approach during a public meeting in Traverse City — the fifth of nine gatherings the Corps is hosting with the White House Council on Environmental Quality to explain the report and get feedback.

Corps project manager Dave Wethington said such a massive reworking of Chicago’s waterway network would take a long time and carry a hefty price tag, requiring the construction of extensive tunnels and reservoirs to prevent flooding.

But he said the pace would be determined partly by how soon the region settles on one alternative, which would enable the Corps to do further planning while supporters seek funding from Congress and the states.

“Our organization is looking to have … at least that consensus voice on the path forward prior to studying anything further, just to ensure that there is an interest in actually moving forward,” Wethington said in an interview.

Wethington said the agency has been meeting with state officials and members of Congress in addition to conducting the public meetings to get a feel for which option could gain the most backing.

The Corps has been impressed by the overwhelming support for physical separation and quick action at all the meetings, he said, although the first one in Chicago also featured impassioned pleas not to shut down waterways used by freight barges and tour boats. Illinois and Indiana business groups and elected officials also have spoken against physical separation and closing shipping locks, although Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn acknowledged last year that separation was “the ultimate solution.”

People who spoke in Traverse City were virtually unanimous in support of complete separation.

“These fish are terrorists,” said Charles Weaver, a river fishing guide. “They don’t wear ski masks and they don’t carry AK-47s, but they have just as much potential to disrupt our society, our culture, economy. When you have terrorists on the radar, you don’t study it for 18 months and you don’t come up with 25-year plans. You take care of the problem now.”

Warren Fuller of nearby Leelanau County added, “We’re in an emergency. Inaction is going to kill us.”