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EDITORIAL: Protecting our Great Lakes is a challenge that transcends politics

Asian carp jump from an Illinois waterway in 2009. | AP file

In an essay in the Sun-Times on Wednesday, 14 mayors came together to argue for help from Washington on a matter of passionate concern to them all: The protection of our Great Lakes.

Some of the mayors who signed the op-ed, including Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, are staunch Democrats. One, Mayor Mike Gandersteen of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is a Republican. Some of the mayors are heads of American cities, others of towns in Canada.

But the message they sent, simply by coming together and speaking as one voice, was clear: Protecting the Great Lakes is not a partisan issue, nor is it simply a regional issue or even just an American issue. It is one of the great economic and environmental challenges of our time, transcending politics and borders.

“We cannot gamble with our most precious natural resource and economic base,” they wrote.

EDITORIAL

The mayors were particularly concerned about the risk of invasive Asian carp working their way from the Mississippi River watershed through barriers into the Great Lakes. To help block the carp, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers has developed a tentative plan to create a barrier at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam along the Des Plaines River near Joliet.

But last year, the Trump administration delayed the project, partly because some members of Congress said it might affect the 15,000 shipping jobs that rely on transporting goods through the Chicago area. The plan was revived last summer, and an internal Army Corps decision on it is expected by June.

Now that the public comment period has ended, the mayors want to ensure there are no more delays. Some members of Congress have complained the process already has taken far too long. The discovery of a carp last June just nine miles from Lake Michigan has added to the sense of urgency.

The Great Lakes are the source of drinking water — some of the best in the world — for 35 million people, a driver of the economy and places of immense beauty. They contain 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. The lakes are home to a $7 billion fishing industry and a $16 billion tourism industry. The additional economic benefit of outdoor sports and wildlife observation is estimated at $18 billion a year.

A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that the economic value of fishing from the Great Lakes is more than U.S. waters in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico — combined.

The $275 million Brandon Road project would rebuild part of the locks so that new technologies — including an electric barrier, water jets, a noise barrier and a flushing lock — can be installed in a more effective way than they could with the existing configuration. The project appears to be the most feasible way to keep the voracious carp out of Lake Michigan, where they could upend an ecosystem already struggling with other invasive species. The project would buttress existing electric barriers that are not considered effective enough to keep the carp out of the lakes over the long term.

The project also is expected to help block the movement of other invasive species between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin.

Supporters of the Army Corps plan are calling for it to be funded fully on the federal level, partly because the Rauner administration has balked at sharing the costs. Full federal funding makes sense because protecting the Great Lakes protects an entire region.

The Corps needs to complete its final report by February 2019 so it can go to Congress for action. If the carp make their way into the Great Lakes, there’s a good chance there will be no way to get them out. We can’t afford further delay.

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