When the stakes are high, letting your guard down is a bad idea.
But when it comes to keeping Asian carp out of Lake Michigan, Chicago’s most precious natural resource, the Trump administration is doing just that. In fact, it seems poised to gather up all the good work that has been done to stop the invasive carp and deep-six it somewhere in the Cal-Sag Channel.
For years, Asian carp have been working their way up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers toward Lake Michigan. No one is entirely sure what will happen if they ever make it into the lake, but the potential for disaster is enormous. If the voracious carp crowd out native fish, the multibillion-dollar recreational fishing industry could be devastated. So could the Great Lakes commercial fishing industry and the multibillion-dollar boating industry. Tourism could suffer mightily. The economic and environmental costs could be incalculable.
Even people engaged in water sports could feel the pain, literally. Some large Asian carp tend to leap high out of the water when they are startled by a boat engine, or even by a paddle, and have been known to seriously injure people when smacking into them.
The only things stopping Asian carp from coming to town right now are two electrical barriers downstream from Chicago. The barriers have worked so far, but experts say there is no guarantee the carp won’t slip through one day. And, like almost all aquatic invasive species, once they make it into the Great Lakes, we will never get them out.
Nearly two years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on a plan to put additional anti-carp protection at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet. Earlier studies had indicated that is the best remaining spot to bolster anti-carp defenses. Last month, the Corps sent out notice that it had completed the proposed plan, along with a set of preliminary recommendations, and would reveal it — and solicit public comment — beginning Feb. 28.
But then, just hours before that deadline, the Corps announced it was pulling back the plan indefinitely. The Corps acted after 16 members of Congress, including Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., sent a letter to President Trump asking him to postpone the entire effort because 15,000 shipping jobs depend on moving goods through Chicago area waterways and could be affected by any changes.
Separately, Illinois Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti argued that the cost of the Corps’ anti-carp plan will be too high — though no one yet knows what that cost will be or how it would compare with the huge economic risk of letting the carp get into Lake Michigan.
The time to raise concerns about how a new carp barrier might affect shipping or other stakeholders is after the preliminary plan is released. Let’s see what the plan is before knocking it down. That’s the whole point of a lengthy period of public comment. To simply put the whole thing on hold, given the very real threat of Asian carp to Lake Michigan and Chicago’s waterways, makes no sense.
As it is, the planning process has been supported by a wide range of groups with a stake in the matter. Even the shipping industry signed off on a 2015 letter urging that the Brandon plan be completed as quickly as possible. Back then, said Marc Smith, senior manager of the Great Lakes Regional center, “You couldn’t get a more diverse set of stakeholders agreeing we need to move forward on studying more protection at Brandon Road.”
Pulling the plug now is irresponsible.
The Corps’ action is particularly disturbing because on Friday it was reported that the Trump administration is considering cutting the much-needed Great Lakes Restoration Initiative’s annual funding by 97 percent. Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Great Lakes initiative has been a critical source of funding for much of Illinois’ anti-Asian carp efforts, including removing millions of pounds of carp from the Mississippi River watershed.
If that cut, along with cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, appears in the final federal budget, Illinois will have a much harder time stopping the carp.
Molly Flanagan, vice president of policy for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said Friday that other Great Lakes-area members of Congress from both parties are drafting a new letter urging that the Corps’ plan be released without delay.
Trump likes to say he’s big on the environment — and big on protecting American jobs.
Here’s his chance to show he’s serious on both counts.
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