Passion for protecting our Great Lakes
WASHINGTON – In January, I was one of many Michiganians who spoke at public meetings on a recently released federal study that examined ways to protect our Great Lakes from Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species. The Michigan public meetings, held in Ann Arbor and in Traverse City, were an important step in advancing a solution that provides the strongest possible protection for our lakes.
These hearings followed the Army Corps of Engineers’ release of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study. Congress authorized this study in 2007 to examine ways to stop Asian carp and other destructive species from moving from the Mississippi River and its tributaries into the Great Lakes. In 2012, we passed additional legislation requiring that it be released a year earlier than planned because of the urgency of stopping this threat.
And it is indeed an urgent problem. Asian carp and other species could make their way from the Mississippi to the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which links the two waterway systems, or through flooding in areas where the two basins meet. That would be disastrous for the lakes; these large, fast-growing fish have quickly squeezed out native species in areas of the Mississippi Valley. If they make it into the Great Lakes, they could do enormous economic and environmental harm.
We have established three barriers basically, underwater electric fences in the Chicago canal. But those barriers are intended as an interim measure while we plan for more permanent protections. And permanent solutions were the focus of the study the Corps of Engineers just released.
As I told Corps officials at the Traverse City public hearing, the good news about the study is that it found the strongest possible protection we could achieve is to physically separate the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins, and that such a step was feasible. That’s the step that I and other Great Lakes lawmakers believe is ultimately the best option for protecting the lakes.
But I also asked the Corps of Engineers to consider criticisms from experts that its study over-estimated some of the costs associated with separating the two basins. For example, the separation option the report suggests includes some costly and time-consuming measures that are not generally required. And the new report fails to estimate the financial and other benefits of separation. By over-estimating costs and failing to fully consider benefits, the report may provide a distorted picture. I encouraged the Corps to better incorporate accurate cost measures and more fully account for all of the project’s benefits as it continues its work.
Over the next few weeks, I will be working with other members of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, which I co-chair with Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, on a number of steps. First, we need to take some interim steps identified in the Corps of Engineers report that we can accomplish quickly and at lower cost. Those steps include chemical controls and inspection of watercraft moving between the two basins to reduce the risk of invasive species transfer. As I testified at the public hearing, I believe we should move to implement these kinds of immediate steps while we advance a long-term solution.
These hearings were important events in raising significant technical questions concerning the Corps of Engineers’ analysis of this problem. But they were important for another reason: They made clear to these officials just how vital the Great Lakes are to the people of Michigan.
We are passionate about our role as stewards of these lakes, and at these public hearings that passion was real and palpable. The urgent need to protect the Great Lakes is something we feel keenly, and I believe that passion should energize the federal agencies that must act to protect the lakes from harm.
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Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.