The Asian carp are coming! We have to separate the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins to stop them! That last line isn't as easy to yell as the first, but it's a common refrain among environmental groups and politicians in the Great Lakes region. Now a binational commission is saying the same thing, minus the exclamation points.
The Great Lakes Commission says separating the two watersheds is the "best long-term solution" for preventing the spread of Asian carp and other aquatic invasives, which have been knocking on the doors of the Great Lakes for years. And, a separation is feasible, the report says. Sure, but for how much?
Four Barriers are Best
The "Restoring the Natural Divide" report from the Great Lakes Commission and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative identifies three separation alternatives:
A down-river single barrier between the confluence of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Cal-Sag Channel and the Lockport Lock;
A mid-system alternative of four barriers on Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) branches between Lockport and Lake Michigan (shown at the top);
A near-lake alternative of up to five barriers closest to the lakeshore.
The report doesn't recommend one alternative over another, but (hint hint) says the mid-system alternative is "the least costly and offers other advantages."
The Great Lakes Commission represents the eight Great Lakes states plus the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Québec. The Cities Initiative is a coalition of U.S. and Canadian mayors. About $2 million in foundation money was spent on the report, which can be found at www.glc.org/caws, and includes this video.
About $4 BillionSo how much to "Restore the Natural Divide"? "As low as $109 million" for the barriers the commission says. Adding in improvements to address water quality, flood prevention and transportation ups the cost to as much as $9.5 billion. Or perhaps, as low as $3.2 billion. The final number would depend on the degree to which wastewater treatment plants are improved as part of the plan. This is, after all, a "sanitary canal" we're talking about.
The $4.27 billion "mid-system" version of the plan breaks down to an average cost of $1 a month for households in the Great Lakes basin ... for the next 47 years (until 2059). Would people be willing to pay that little ... or that much, depending on how you look at it? The average payments would add up to $564, by the way. That's pretty minimal for the benefits, right?
Will anything come of this? That remains to be seen. Can engineering be a solution to a problem created by engineering? Couldn't a bird with a fish in its mouth, or a bad kid with a bucket, defeat this billion-dollar separation plan? Would money be better spent on controls and an enhanced electric barrier?
Here's what's at stake: The Great Lakes are estimated to generate up to $7 billion in economic activity, per year, based on tourism and fishing. And tourism and fishing would suffer if the lakes were dominated by an invasive like Asian carp (see this report on their ability to flourish in Lake Erie). And, preventing just one invasive from entering the lakes could save as much as $5 billion over 30 years, the report says.