The enemy is a voracious, destructive alien species. Government agencies at all levels are girding for a last-stand battle. It sounds like the plot for a Grade B science fiction movie, but the battle is real, and the stakes are high.
The aliens are Asian carp that escaped into the Mississippi River in 1993 and have been migrating northward since. Now the invaders threaten to enter the Great Lakes, and the forces opposing them have taken an Alamo-like stand where Lake Michigan meets the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
At stake is a $4 billion Great Lakes fishing industry, an ecosystem that’s already been battered for more than 50 years by invaders ranging from sea lampreys to zebra mussels, and an inland waterway industry that could suffer millions of dollars in economic damage.
|The carp, which can grow to 3 ½ feet and 50 pounds and quickly crowd out native species, in recent weeks have been the subject of a White House summit and a congressional hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition by the state of Michigan to close locks including the Thomas J. O’Brien Lock, the main route between the waterway and Lake Michigan.
On Feb. 12, federal officials announced a detailed action plan to control the carp threat. Its centerpiece is completion of an electric barrier near the lock and dam at Lockport, Ill. However, officials admit it will take time and millions of dollars to develop a multifaceted cost-effective control strategy.
While no one wants the carp to spread farther, closing the waterway has divided its human adversaries along environmental and economic lines. Both sides are producing data to make their cases, but the numbers don’t match.
Michigan and several environmental groups want to close the O’Brien lock as a temporary barrier until officials can find a more permanent fix.
Illinois, with vigorous support from the American Waterways Operators, argues that closing the lock would cost the barge industry and the industries it serves millions in economic damage.
On Feb. 4, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the state’s petition based on a report from Wayne State University in Detroit that downplayed the economic losses. According to John Taylor, associate professor of supply chain management, barge traffic on the Illinois waterway has declined, and what remains could move to truck or rail.
Using Army Corps of Engineers data, Taylor said tonnage through the O’Brien lock dropped from 7.3 million tons in 2007 to 6.8 million tons in 2008.
“How much is 7 million tons? It’s the equivalent of about two freight trains a day. In Chicago, there are 500 freight trains a day,” Taylor said. “If you take the barge traffic through the O’Brien lock, it’s somewhere around 4,800 barges a year. If you divide that by 250 days a year, it comes to something like 15 to 20 barges a day.”
Closing the O’Brien lock, Taylor said, would not stop barge traffic on the remaining waterway. Several industries would still receive barge deliveries. Sand and gravel that’s stockpiled above the lock could be unloaded elsewhere on the waterway, although the cost of truck transport to final destinations would likely increase.
“Our estimate is that the total cost is somewhere below $70 million per year,” Taylor said. “If you look at the Chicago area GDP, $70 million is about 0.013 percent of it.”
Lynn Muench, the AWO’s senior vice president for regional advocacy, said Michigan is using data to score political points. The AWO is sponsoring its own economic study, which should be ready in two or three months.
“There are a lot of things that make sense, that would be a win-win solution and not a lose-neutral solution,” Muench said. “I think what they (Michigan and environmental groups) are suggesting is a loss for the economy and doesn’t really do much to stop the carp.”
Muench said power plants and grain shippers maintain terminals on the national river system, even if they’re unused, as leverage against railroads pushing their rates too high. “If there weren’t water-compelled rates, overnight energy costs would go up,” she said.
Corps of Engineers data indicate tonnage through the O’Brien lock dropped 28 percent between 2006 and 2008, but despite annual highs and lows, overall tonnage increased 7.1 percent between 1998 and 2006.
The national recession has caused a decline in barge traffic, said Sandor J. Toth, publisher of the newsletter River Transport News. Industries that use sand and gravel or raw steel have all taken a hit. It’s no surprise that volume dropped in recent years. There’s also no evidence that rail tonnage is growing as barge tonnage declines.
What’s missing in the carp debate are the capital costs at risk, Toth said. “I’ve seen some ridiculous claims in terms of how much it’s going to cost the industry to bypass the lock. This is a problem that nobody has addressed. Nearly all the terminals were built above the O’Brien lock. There’s hundreds of millions of investment there. There’s going to be a hell of a lot of stranded capital if that lock is permanently closed.”
Contact R.G. Edmonson at email@example.com.