A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to keep Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes has an important new supporter — J.B. Pritzker, the recently elected governor of Illinois. In an April letter to the Corps, Pritzker said the state was “willing to move forward to preconstruction, engineering and design” on the Brandon Road Lock and Dam Project. But he also expressed concern about the estimated price tag: $778 million.
A legal dispute in Indiana over private property rights and the public trust doctrine ended in February when the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear the case. In 2018, Indiana’s Supreme Court ruled that public use of the Lake Michigan shoreline extended to the lake’s “natural ordinary high water mark.” Some lakefront property owners argued that the “water’s edge” should instead be used as the legal dividing line. The Indiana justices disagreed: “At a minimum, walking below the natural [ordinary high water mark] along the shores of Lake Michigan is a protected public use.”
By July of next year, a practice in Ohio’s commercial harbors will no longer be allowed — the dumping of dredged materials into the open waters of Lake Erie. This ban is the result of a bill passed by the legislature in 2015 (SB 1), and is part of the state’s broader efforts to keep excess nutrients from entering the shallowest of the Great Lakes, causing harmful algal blooms and degrading water quality.
The legislative action from four years ago, along with subsequent funding commitments, has led to an unprecedented effort in the state to find beneficial uses of these materials — the rock, sand, gravel, mud and clay removed from the bottom of shipping channels to keep them safe for navigation.
Michigan Sen. Curt VanderWall calls it the “most scrutinized pipeline in the nation.” And whatever one thinks the state should do about the future of Line 5 — which is located under the Straits of Mackinac and carries up to 540,000 barrels of oil and natural gas liquids every day — it’s hard to disagree with the observation. Built in 1953, the twin pipelines have been called a “sunken hazard” that put the “Great Lakes at risk of a catastrophic oil pipeline rupture.”
But VanderWall and others note that Michigan relies on the energy supplies being shipped via Line 5. He says, for example, that most of the propane used in the Upper Peninsula comes from the 645-mile pipeline, which starts in Wisconsin, goes under the Straits, and then winds through Michigan before reaching Ontario.
“To get the same supplies by truck, you’d need 2,400 trucks doing it every day, nonstop,” says VanderWall, a member of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Legislative Caucus Executive Committee. “The pipeline is the safest way to transport the oil. We need to make it safer.”
The state’s policy solution, at least for now, is this: Allow Line 5 to continue to operate for another few years, under enhanced inspections. Meanwhile, begin construction on a utility tunnel, located up to 100 feet beneath the lakebed, that would secure a new pipeline.
A bipartisan deal on how to manage the nation’s water resources has potentially big implications for the Great Lakes and the region’s states — authorization of a nearly $1 billion project at the Soo Locks, movement on a plan to stop Asian carp, and more money to protect drinking water.
Signed into law in October, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) also establishes new programs to research the eradication of zebra mussels and Asian carp and to explore technologies that prevent harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes.