If a group of lawmakers backing a federal bill introduced Wednesday get their way, the waterways linking the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes would be permanently separated to keep Asian carp and other invasive species at bay.
Instead of passing through the current network of canals and rivers, boats and barges might one day use massive boat lifts, for example, to bypass the blockade. The costs and workability of such a plan, however, are unknown.
U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced the "Permanent Prevention of Asian Carp Act" to speed research into such a plan. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., introduced it in the House.
The lawmakers' action comes after officials announced last week that an Asian carp had been found for the first time beyond electric barriers meant to keep them out of the Great Lakes. Commercial fishermen landed the 3-foot-long, 20-pound bighead carp in Lake Calumet on Chicago's South Side, about six miles from Lake Michigan.
The legislation would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete research on so-called hydrological separation within 18 months. The Army Corps, which has said research could take up to five years, said Wednesday it couldn't comment on pending legislation.
"While this method would require a complex feat of engineering, we need to understand the costs and benefits and whether this method offers the best hope for a long-term solution for containing not only the carp, but other invasive species," Durbin said in a statement.
The Alliance for the Great Lakes has been calling for further research on permanent separation for years, and now that legislators are acting, it's optimistic that a long-term solution may finally be realized.
"No matter what happens tomorrow, invasive species are going to be using the Chicago waterway as a super highway until we come up with a permanent solution," President Joel Brammeier said.
But Jim Farrell, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce's Infrastructure Council, said there are other options that should be explored to keep the carp out of the lakes, such as expanding electric barriers, conducting fish kills and keeping low oxygen levels in some waterways so fish couldn't live or pass through.
"A physical barrier which would require the stopping of barges and the reengineering of water management in the Chicago region is likely to be a dead end," Farrell said.
Asian carp can grow to as many as 4-feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds, and biologists fear the ravenous fish could devastate the lakes' fishing industry. For decades, Bighead and silver carp have been migrating up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers toward the Great Lakes. Two electric barriers, which emit pulses to scare the carp away or give a jolt if they proceed, have been a last line of defense.
If enacted, the study would be required to begin within 30 days. The Army Corps would be required to send a progress report to Congress and President Barack Obama within six months and again in 12 months.
A hearing is planned on Asian carp for July 14, Stabenow said. The study, the lawmakers said, would address the possible costs of such a project, as well as flooding concerns and the effects on Chicago's waters and boat traffic.
In a conference call with reporters, Stabenow said the bill also is written to give federal agencies the power to monitor other potential carp threats. She said her office has been in touch with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources about the possibility that carp could get from a tributary of the Wabash River near Fort Wayne, Ind. into the Maumee River through flooding and eventually get into Lake Erie. She noted, however, that nothing had been found to indicate that's happening.
There are no natural connections between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi basin. More than a century ago, engineers linked them with a network of canals and existing rivers to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and keep waste from flowing into Lake Michigan, which Chicago uses for drinking water.
The U.S. Supreme Court twice turned down a bid by Michigan and other Great Lakes states to close locks leading to Lake Michigan to block the carp. Camp and Stabenow said they'll continue to fight to shut the locks.
A Chicago-based industry coalition called Unlock Our Jobs opposes closing the locks or a permanent separation. Mark Denzler, chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers Association and a member of the coalition, said closures would harm shipping and other industries with no guarantee of blocking the carp.
(Associated Press Writer Serena Dai in Chicago contributed to this report.)