The federal transportation bill Congress approved Friday affects how authorities will respond to the threat invasive species such as Asian carp pose to the Great Lakes.
Some politicians and business groups are worried about the bill having a negative impact on the economy in Indiana and Illinois.
A rider to the two-year reauthorization of surface transportation programs requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to speed up work in its Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study. Originally slated for completion in 2015, the Army Corps has up to 18 months to recommend methods to stop the spread of nuisance species via aquatic pathways between the watersheds.
Once a project is deemed justified, then the bill calls for the Army Corps to begin the preconstruction engineering and design phase. By early October, the Corps also must submit a list of tasks left to complete in the study to a handful of Congressional committees and describe how much they will cost.
Supporters of a faster timeline, which include legislators and environmentalists in many Great Lakes states, welcomed the news Friday.
"While we should be looking at how to revitalize and reconfigure the Chicago River to address the invasive species issue, the Corps’ timeline has been a barrier to real action in blocking not just Asian carp, but the dozens of other species big and small using moving through Chicago to access the Mississippi River and Great Lakes ecosystems," said Henry Henderson, Midwest Program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a Friday blog post.
United States Sens. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Reps. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Danny Davis, D-Ill., voted in support of the bill. United States Rep. Jesse Jackson, D-Ill., did not vote on the bill.
Researchers have identified Chicago area waterways as the front line for battling invasive species because of the various points of entry into Lake Michigan such as Calumet Harbor, the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal and the Burns Waterway. Other pathways identified as interbasin transmission points include Parker Ditch, Cobb Ditch and Loomis Lake in Porter County.
Environmental DNA monitoring technology detected DNA of silver carp in Lake Calumet in May and June and in the Little Calumet River in May. While the find doesn't guarantee live Asian carp are present in the waters, concerns have been stoked because of the proximity both bodies of water have to Lake Michigan.
The fear is that if Asian carp, which can spawn quickly, are voracious eaters and can grow to up to 100 pounds, become established in the lake, it could devastate the sport fishing industry. Asian carp includes bighead and silver species can starve out native fish populations because they compete for the same food supply.
One recommendation that has rankled the waterborne shipping industry is hydrological separation of the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan watersheds. This proposal could include closing Chicago area locks, which users of the waterway for commerce vehemently oppose because they say it disrupts freight shipments and would have a negative impact on the jobs and industries depending on that corridor.
Sen. Dan Coats., R-Ind., voted against the bill because it contained language dropped into the bill last-minute "that could devastate Northern Indiana's economy and lead to massive federal spending totaling over $100 billion" and violated spending agreements. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., tweeted support for Coats' speech on the Senate floor against the amendments.
Kay Nelson, director of environmental affairs for the Northwest Indiana Forum, said there has been outsized focus on separating the watersheds and reversing the flow of the Chicago River and not enough conversation about environmental and engineering feats that have to be accomplished to do that. Outside of the significant dollar cost of projects, Nelson said wastewater treatment plants would have to submit antidegredation environmental permits and problems with combined sewer overflows have to be resolved.
"The whole public is under the impression that the Corps' could do this separation in a short period of time and therefore the general public believes that this should be done ASAP in order to protect the Great Lakes against the Asian carp migration," Nelson said.