Price tag to stop Asian carp with ecological barrier estimated in billions of dollars

Stateline Midwest ~ March 2012

With concerns high about the potential impact that an Asian carp invasion could have on the $7 billion Great Lakes fishing industry, policymakers have another dollar figure to consider — $4.3 billion, the lowest-cost option for physically separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds.

Such a separation would provide a long-term, permanent solution to the problem of invasives such as Asian carp traveling between the watersheds.

But the high price tag reflects the complexity of a project that would also impact flood control, water quality and transportation in the region.

Construction of the actual ecological barriers would account for a small portion of total project costs, according to a study released in January by the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

Instead, the bulk of expenses would come from having to upgrade Chicago-area wastewater treatment plants (because discharges would flow into the Great Lakes rather than the Mississippi River), transform the region’s stormwater infrastructure, and build new facilities and boat lifts to accommodate recreational and commercial traffic.

The title of the recent study, “Restoring the Natural Divide,” refers to the fact that the Chicago Area Waterway System has “unnaturally” connected the two watersheds for the last century through a network of rivers, waterways and canals.

This man-made connection allows invasive species to travel between the watersheds.

In all, 39 invasive species have been identified by the Army Corps of Engineers as having the potential to move from one watershed to the other via the system and to moderately or severely impact the ecosystem that it enters.

But it is the potential Great Lakes invasion of Asian carp — which has decimated fish populations in parts of the Mississippi River system — that has led to calls for watershed separation. For example, led by Michigan, several Great Lakes states unsuccessfully sought a ruling in federal court to close the locks in the Chicago Area Waterway System.

As Great Lakes Commission executive director Tim Eder noted in a webinar hosted by the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus, the recent legal actions show how concerns about Asian carp have divided the region — pitting Illinois and Indiana against other states.

A watershed-separation project that stops invasive species while improving flood control, transportation and water quality could unite the Great Lakes states. But the question for policymakers will be whether to spend billions of dollars in pursuit of these objectives. And if so, where will the money come from?

The cheapest of the three alternatives (the “mid-system” option) identified in the recent study calls for the construction of four physical barriers in the Chicago Waterway Area System.