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Column Mon Apr 12 2010

Close the Great Lakes!

[Editor's note: This article was submitted by freelance writer and occasional GB contributor Edward McClelland.]

If the Asian carp ever manages to colonize Lake Michigan, it will join a long roster of ugly foreign marine life that has invaded the Great Lakes in the last 50 years: the hard-shelled zebra mussel, which clings to boat hulls and water intake pipes from Toronto to Chicago; the sea lamprey, which has been attaching its sharp-toothed orifice to salmon in Lake Huron for years; and the viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) virus, infecting fish that wash up dead on Lake Huron beaches.

This winter, as the carp slithered upstream, the Army Corps of Engineers considered closing the Chicago River locks four days a week, to prevent the Oriental aquanaut from swimming into Lake Michigan. The Obama Administration announced a $2.2 billion plan to clean up the Great Lakes [PDF]. Its "zero tolerance" policy toward invasive species included funding for electric barriers to block the Asian carp, and ballast treatments to kill off creatures that stow away in the holds of European ships, or "salties."

But none of those plans mentioned the most obvious measure of all -- in fact, the only measure that will keep this riffraff out of our waters. It's time to close the Great Lakes for business. Seal the Chicago River locks forever. Block off the St. Lawrence Seaway. Fill the Erie Canal with dirt.

greatlakesmap.jpg"We cannot fight biology with engineering alone," insists Cameron Davis, the Chicagoan who oversees the Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes clean-up effort.

Why not? Engineering created the invasive species problem, and engineering can end it, too.

Ever since the Erie Canal connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie in 1825, every attempt to link the Great Lakes to North America's other great waterways has been an ecological disaster. The Erie Canal turned into a highway for the Asian clam and the round goby.

Three quarters of a century later, the Chicago River's course was reversed because the million people along its banks were filling the torpid channel -- "a sluggish, slimy stream, too lazy to clean itself," one 19th-century observer called it -- with waste. This flowing toilet fouled Lake Michigan, the city's water supply, and Chicago won the title "First City of Filth."

Engineers dredged the riverbed, tilting it away from the lake, then dug a long trench -- the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal -- linking the Chicago River with the Des Plaines River.

That wasn't the end of Chicago's lake-draining projects. In 1910 the North Shore Channel opened in Wilmette. A dozen years later the Cal-Sag Channel started sucking water through the Calumet River. By the 1920s Chicago was guzzling 8,700 cubic feet every second. Now we had clean drinking water, and barges could float between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes.

But other Great Lakes states were outraged by Chicago's thirst. They went all the way to the Supreme Court, claiming the diversion was lowering Lake Michigan and Lake Huron by six inches. In 1938 the court told Illinois it could allow up to 1,500 cubic feet per second flow into the Chicago River and on to the Sanitary Canal, and it could take as much water as it wanted for drinking.

Our Great Lakes neighbors still hate the Canal. Now, as a result of the Asian carp menace, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox is asking the Supreme Court to reopen the 83-year-old "Chicago Diversion" case. He'll be joined by Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Ontario. That's a lot of neighbors who resent the fact that Chicago's toilet drain has become an invasion route for an ugly, ravenous fish.

The St. Lawrence Seaway, which created a maritime route to the Atlantic Ocean in 1959, opened up the Great Lakes to an entire world of wildlife that could thrive in both salt and fresh. Salties brought in an average of one new foreign species a year.

Fed up with this invasion, Michigan decided in 2006 to prohibit salties from dumping ballast in its waters. Nonetheless, a new invader was discovered in the Muskegon River the very next year: the bloody red mysid, a Eurasian shrimp that feasts on the same plankton as native fish, and swims across state lines.

"For our law to have the effect we want it to have, it has to go beyond Michigan," said Robert McCann, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "The ideal situation would be federal legislation."

An Ohio congressman proposed a bill requiring salties to flush out their ballast tanks at sea, or treat the water with chemicals that kill any stowaway species. It never passed. Great Lakes United, a group based in Buffalo, New York and Ottawa, Ontario, wants a ban on salties until the U.S. and Canada deal with the ballast issue.

Salties carry only 7 percent of the cargo that travels the Great Lakes each year, according to Jennifer Nalbone, the group's campaign director for invasive species. A Grand Valley State University study found that it would cost an extra $55 million a year for salties to unload in Quebec, then have their goods carried inland by truck or train. That's a tenth of the annual economic damage caused by the zebra mussel and its cousin, the quagga mussel.

"We're not looking to ban salties forever," Nalbone said, "but just until they install new technology. Every year that we wait for regulations, we get invaded. Unfortunately, we just don't know what the next invader will be."

Similarly, the estimated damage the Asian carp would cause to the Great Lakes fishery -- $7 billion -- is far more than the cost of unloading barges before they enter Lake Michigan. Needless to say, it's also more than the price of Chicago River tour boat tickets sold every year.

Chicago owes its existence to its position as a link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Reversing the Chicago River allowed it to become a great city -- 6.7 million people can't drink from a lake in which they urinate. But environmentalists say such a project would never be approved today, and they argue that modern sewage treatment makes it unnecessary. Laurene von Klan, the former executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, once said she wanted to start a discussion about reversing the reversal.

"I have not seen anyone definitely evaluate whether the reversal remains necessary," von Klan said. "A hundred years ago it made complete sense. Today freshwater is in short supply. We are using good, clean Lake Michigan water to flush the water and dilute pollution. My sense is there are better uses for the water -- like drinking."

Similarly, Chicago once needed the Erie Canal as a route for restless New Englanders and European immigrants who landed in New York City. But rivers and lakes are no longer our pathways through the wilderness. We travel now by road, rail and air, and we can move cargo that way, too. As transportation advanced, Chicago advanced with it, building the nation's busiest train station, and then its busiest airport. Now that exploiting Lake Michigan is no longer essential to our growth, and our economy, let's advance a step further by taking a step back, and restore the Great Lakes to the way they were when we found them.

Edward McClelland is the author of Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President, which will be released in October by Bloomsbury USA.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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Brian / April 12, 2010 1:41 PM

The author was not being clear- existing Federal regulations require all ships entering the Great Lakes from the sea to flush their tanks (or not discharge ballast at all). Please check 33CFR151.1510.

Savomaki / April 13, 2010 6:59 PM

Here's a song about living in the distressed Michigan economy:

Jason / May 6, 2010 1:19 PM

They have spent some much time on this. Why not make a definite decision already! If they wait much longer, it will be left up for our future generations to deal with when it gets so out of hand, and costs even much more money to restore.

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