Big price to saving Great Lakes from Asian carp

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

Experts say the Asian carp’s threat to the Great Lakes is a serious one that could topple the $7 billion fishing industry and wreak havoc on the ecology of the nation’s largest group of freshwater lakes.

Asian carp don’t have natural predators and feed on the same food as native fish, which makes them dangerous to the Great Lakes.

The debate has been whether an expensive physical barrier between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River in Chicago, which is already infested with the invasive species, is the most effective way to stop an invasion or if the electric barriers already in place are doing the job.

In April, Investigative Post freelancer Justin Sondel reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was deep into studying the best way to stop the fish.

That study is done. The conclusion: a physical barrier is the most effective way to stop the fish and other invasive species from reaching the Great Lakes.

The Army Corps has already admitted that the fish can pass through the electric barriers, according to a report at EcoWatch.

Reported EcoWatch:

“All evidence points to one conclusion: physical separation is the only defensible solution to the epidemic of invasive species which pose a threat to people, wildlife and our economy,” said Robert Hirschfeld, water policy specialist, Prairie Rivers Network. “It’s time to get away from Band-Aid approaches and toward a long-term, comprehensive and permanent solution. This report can help us do that.”

But here’s the rub: a physical barrier between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basin watersheds could cost between $3.2 billion and $9.5 billion if it also deals with water quality, flood prevention and transportation, according to a study from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative and Great Lakes Commission. The report also noted that constructing only a physical barrier could cost as low as $109 million.

The Army Corps study pegged the cost as high as $18 billion. The most expensive solutions could take 10 to 25 years to finish.

The Detroit Free Press reports that a price tag that high may slow action, if not make the undertaking politically impossible.

Not only is cost an issue, but Sondel’s story points out how some are concerned that a physical barrier could hurt the shipping industry.

Lynn Muench, the senior vice president of regional advocacy for the American Waterways Operators, a trade organization that represents 350 companies, told Sondel: “There are several companies in the towing industry that would be put out of business because that is their business, to tow barges from the lake to the rivers or back and forth.”

The Great Lakes Commission’s analysis concluded in 2012 that preventing just one invasive species from entering the Great Lakes can save as much as $5 billion over 30 years.

So, the argument is that constructing a physical barrier will save more money over time, even though the upfront costs may be hard to swallow for some people.

“It’s a real investment, but the reality is, this is hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage every year,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said last year.