Army Corps unveils $275M plan to battle Asian carp

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Environmental groups and Gov. Rick Snyder demanded immediate action on Monday after the Trump administration released a long-awaited report on a $275 million plan to control the invasive Asian carp before it reaches the Great Lakes.

The report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lays out tentative measures that include installing a new electric barrier to repel or stun the destructive fish and underwater speakers generating “complex noise” to deter them from traveling beyond the lock and dam at Brandon Road near Joliet, Illinois. It came after five months of prodding from bipartisan members of the Michigan delegation and others.

The Army Corps stopped short of recommending closure of the Brandon Road lock, citing the potential economic impact on the barge and shipping industry.

Snyder said Monday that steps laid out in the report “must be taken” to stop the advancing Asian carp, calling for “immediate, decisive action.”

“It is time for all the Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces — and all who care about the lakes — to come together to demand action at Brandon Road Lock and Dam, a critical pinch point for stopping invasive carp,” he said.

But construction is likely years away. The agency will collect public comments for 45 days, then begin a feasibility study, followed by reviews by federal and state agencies and a Chief of Engineers report, which is not expected until August 2019.

If authorized by Congress and funded, the project could be constructed roughly four years after authorization, with completion around 2025.

“This is too urgent a situation to wait two more years to even get a recommendation to Congress,” said Molly Flanagan, vice president for policy at the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “If necessary, I think Congress needs to order the Corps to move faster.”

The Brandon Road study was undertaken two years ago, costing an estimated $8 million.

Scheduled to be released five months ago, the report was delayed at the request of those with concerns about how the measures would affect waterway navigation. The stakes increased in June with the discovery of a live silver carp nine miles from Lake Michigan.

Brandon Road is an ideal site for blocking Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species from going upstream, in part because of its physical configuration — a 24-foot difference in water elevation at the dam that limits upstream transfer of the fish.

Lock closure ruled out

The Army Corps identified six potential alternatives, ranging from taking no new action to closing the Brandon Road lock with a permanent concrete wall.

Closing the lock at Brandon Road was ranked the “most effective” option in preventing Asian carp from infiltrating the Great Lakes Basin, with the lowest probability of Asian carp establishing themselves in the freshwater lakes (1-3 percent).

But lock closure would impede navigation and potentially cause some companies that ship goods through the lock to go out of business, according to the study. Closing the lock would also require congressional authorization.

By comparison, the recommended plan for an electric barrier and underwater speakers carries a 10-17 percent probability that Asian carp would establish themselves in the Great Lakes, according to the study.

That recommended plan also calls for construction of a specially engineered channel fitted with water-propulsion jets and a flushing lock to sweep out small fish and floating organisms such as larvae and eggs.

Placement of the electric barrier would be a step in the right direction, but the Army Corps’ plan doesn’t adopt other “necessary” structural changes at the lock and dam, said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago.

“This isn’t the time for halfway measures. The threat of Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes, where they would cause enormous ecological and economic costs, is too high,” Learner said.

The American Waterways Operators, a trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry, supports non-structural options at Brandon Road to continue maritime commerce.

The non-structural category includes education and outreach, fishing out the Asian carp, poisoning them with a chemical and other pest management.

The group has said a new electric barrier would be “unacceptable” due to safety concerns. Deck hands must be out on front of towboats when ships are going through a lock such as Brandon Road.

“It’s a very dangerous time when we could have falls overboard, so putting more electricity in there is unconscionable if you care about the safety of humans,” said Lynn Muench, senior vice president for regional advocacy for the AWO.

Estimates questioned

In Monday’s report, the Army Corps said it would initially operate the electric barrier only when vessels are not immediately downstream of the engineered channel and not when they’re in the engineered channel or proceeding through the lock. When the electric barrier can’t be used during these times, the complex noise technology would be used to deter the fish.

Sean Hammond, deputy policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, has questions about how the Army Corps chose the recommended plan, particularly regarding the analysis of economic and environmental effects.

The report estimates that closing the Brandon Road lock would have an impact of $318.7 million a year on navigation. By comparison, the economic impact of recreational fishing in the Great Lakes was valued at $1.228 billion in 2011.

“We want to make sure they’re not underestimating the impact of Asian carp on the Great Lakes and not overestimating economic impact to big businesses,” said Flanagan of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Advocates also questioned how the Army Corps generated the probabilities of Asian carp reaching the lakes under various alternatives. The method used by the agency to aggregate estimates from multiple experts is “widely debated” within the scientific literature, the Army Corps acknowledged in the report.

The Army Corps expects it would cover 65 percent of the $275 million project cost at Brandon Road. The agency is seeking a non-federal sponsor to cover the rest of the cost, as is required for a construction project under the Water Resources Development Act.

Hard work begins

Federal agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on stopgap measures, including the installation of electric barriers in the Chicago Area Waterway System.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said the report’s release is a positive step but “now is when the hard work begins.”

“Republicans and Democrats must work in a bipartisan manner to craft policy solutions that preserve the Great Lakes ecosystem as well as the Great Lakes economy,” said Huizenga, who co-chairs the House Great Lakes Task Force.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who co-chairs the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, also welcomed the report’s release.

“It is encouraging that the Army Corps is considering concrete actions to stop the carp from entering our Great Lakes,” Stabenow said. “It’s urgent that we move as quickly as possible to get permanent solutions in place.”

The agency will collect public comments on the plan through Sept. 21, through the website, or by letter to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District, ATTN: GLMRIS-Brandon Road Comments, 231 S. LaSalle St., Suite 1500, Chicago, IL 60604. Public meetings are also planned but have not been scheduled.

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