Washington — In a departure from the previous administration, the new governor of Illinois said he supports a proposed project near Lake Michigan to keep Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, though he has questions about the $778 million price tag.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, wrote last week to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, saying he "generally" supports the structural measures proposed for the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Illinois. 

"However, I would like to continue the conversation about the cost of the project and opportunities for the state of Illinois to partner with other Great Lakes states and the federal government," he said. 

"My administration takes this ongoing issue seriously and understands that it is much easier to control and prevent Asian carp at one choke point rather than in five Great Lakes." 

Pritzker also stressed the "urgency" to act in response to the threat posed by the invasive fish, which he acknowledged could affect Illinois' tourism and fishing industries and residents' source of drinking water.

"My administration respects scientists' warnings that if Asian carp establish in the Great Lakes and its tributaries, they could harm and possibly eliminate native species, and Great Lakes communities and industries would be harmed as a result," Pritzker said. 

Illinois, which has not committed funds towards the project, is its non-federal sponsor.

Illinois had previously resisted the recommended Brandon Road measures and minimized the threat of Asian carp moving closer to the lakes. State officials had raised concerns about the project's impact on the regional economy and commercial and recreational navigation.

Pritzker's letter comes after outgoing Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, in December rebuffed an offer of $8 million by Michigan to help support operations and maintenance at the Brandon Road lock. 

Former Gov. Rick Snyder, also a Republican, had urged Rauner to commit to joining Michigan and other Great Lakes states in a partnership agreement to support the Brandon Road project. 

Rauner wrote to Snyder that, "We do not believe it is appropriate — especially given our lame-duck status — for us to accept funds and bind Illinois to a project that is not final, and whose true costs are years from being calculated." 

Since then, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has taken office in Michigan and her staff has had "ongoing and productive conversations" with Pritzker’s administration regarding Asian carp, though it has not specifically discussed the $8 million in funding, said Ed Golder, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 

He said the state Legislature appropriated the $8 million at the end of 2018 and that the offer to Illinois stands.

"Keeping these damaging, invasive species out of the Great Lakes remains an extremely high priority for Gov. Whitmer and her administration," Golder said. 

"We will continue to work with the state of Illinois and other partner states and provinces to maximize the benefit of this strategic investment and ensure it is used at the appropriate time."

Pritzker's office did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

To reduce the risk of Asian carp reaching the lakes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recommended installing an electric barrier at the Brandon Road lock to repel or stun the fish. 

The Army Corps also recommends creating a "curtain" of air bubbles to remove fish in the spaces between barges, and underwater speakers that would generate noise to deter fish from traveling beyond the lock and dam.

Advocates say that, for the project to advance, Illinois would need to sign off on an agreement with the Army Corps for the pre-construction, engineering and design phase of the project. 

That phase will arrive after the final report is delivered to Congress in the spring, but Pritzker said he is seeking an extension from the corps.

"I ask for an extension so that my administration can further consider the costs of the project, explore additional cost-sharing and partnership opportunities, and take advantage of Michigan's offer for substantial integration into this conversation," he wrote. 

Like Whitmer, Pritzker expressed concern about the increased cost estimate for the project, which last year ballooned to $777.8 million for construction, including contingencies and a non-federal sponsor's share of $272 million.

Additional operations and maintenance costs are estimated at $7.7 million annually, including a non-federal share of $1.5 million. 

"We recognize the urgency of this issue, and I want to work together to address the increased costs and ensure that we have the ability to fully fund it," Pritzker said.

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