WASHINGTON (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - A long-awaited report on how best to stop the spread of voracious species of Asian carp into the Great Lakes is due out the first week of 2014. But it won't include a straightforward recommendation - even though that's what many members of Congress say they want from it.
The Army Corps of Engineers says its study - years in the making and due Jan. 6 - will outline options for controlling the spread of invasive species between the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes, but stops short of choosing among them. Officials instead say the report is intended to aid "more educated decision making" as to next steps.
That's disappointing news for members of Congress who first asked for a report on how to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes in 2007 and, as recently as 2012, made clear their preference for consideration of a permanent separation of Chicago-area waterways - where the species have been detected - and Lake Michigan that could be moved on quickly.
"Even though they are looking at a range of options, they have to be prepared to have very specific conversations with us about how we move forward," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who as recently as Dec. 18 expressed concerns to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant Army secretary over the Corps, that the report didn't include a recommendation.
"This can't just be another study. That's not good enough," Stabenow said.
But it may have to be for now. Despite worries that the species collectively known as Asian carp may have already breached electric barriers in Chicago waterways or otherwise reached the Great Lakes, the Corps seems set on letting Congress and the public decide among the options, any of which could cost billions and set off regional squabbling.
In 2009, Michigan went to court trying to force the closure of Chicago-area waterways linked to Lake Michigan, a move businesspeople and port officials in Illinois and Indiana argued could cripple shipping. They noted there had been scant physical evidence - then or now - that the invasive carp had made it past the barriers 35 miles from the lake.
The heated rhetoric has largely died down since, but the report - if it were to recommend separating the waterways, or lead to renewed demands to do so - could spark its renewal.
Ports of Indiana spokeswoman Heather Bunning said keeping Chicagoland locks open remains vital to shipping through Burns Harbor and elsewhere. Doug Whitley, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said a waterway separation would be ill-advised since other Great Lakes tributaries may pose a larger threat.
"If they closed the Chicago River and these tributary rivers end up being the entryway into the Lakes, it would be a disaster for Illinois for something that didn't end up working anyway," said Whitley, who said the Corps has been "steady and steadfast" not only in working on the report but in monitoring - and blocking - the spread of Asian carp.
On Dec. 20, the Corps said new research shows that water flows around barges traveling through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal can trap and transport fish past electronic barriers - though there is no evidence that has happened with any Asian carp. The Corps is continuing tests on the barriers and fish behavior to see if changes should be made.
At stake is a $7-billion Great Lakes fishery that the Asian carp - which are voracious eaters - could decimate by destroying other fish habitat if they do reach Lake Michigan. A 2012 report out of Canada said it take as few as 10 mature females and 10 or fewer males to have a better-than-even chance of establishing a foothold in one of the lakes.
Only one carp has been found north of the barriers, in Lake Calumet, in 2010. But carp DNA has been found in the Great Lakes as recently as in November, when DNA was discovered in a water sample from Lake Michigan's Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin - fueling concerns on the part of some that permanent separation of waterways is the only solution.
"Hydrologically separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins is the only sure way to protect the Great Lakes," House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Midland, said this month, adding that he was awaiting the Corps' "research and action plan to begin working toward a ... solution."
But with a range of options on the table it's anyone's guess how long it will take to settle on a course of action and move on it.
The Corps has said its report - which is expected to include eight options - complies with all the legal requirements set forth by Congress and analyzes, even if it does not outright recommend, physical separation. Following the release of the report, public meetings are expected to be scheduled in Ann Arbor and Traverse City, as well as in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, St. Louis and St. Paul, Minn.
"They're not going to produce a recommendation. There's no recommended option in here," said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission in Ann Arbor, which produced a report in early 2012 showing separation was possible, though it could cost billions of dollars. "They're saying to Congress, 'You tell us what to do next.' "
Eder said he has few doubts that the report will be comprehensive and helpful, containing reams of information on the engineering, possible design, benefits and costs of each of the options. But it still leaves the timetable for the next step - settling on a specific recommendation - uncertain.
"It's frustrating," Eder said. "We need to see some action on it. This is an urgent problem."
Detroit Free Press