President Obama still must be held accountable if Asian carp colonize the Great Lakes and destroy the $7 billion fishery anchored in western Lake Erie.
But at least now there’s evidence his administration’s stopgap effort to manage the crisis is buying time until a final decision is made on whether to separate permanently the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basins — a multibillion-dollar project that many scientists view as the only solution.
New U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data further validate research that created the uproar. They suggest the $9 million set of electrical barriers that are being fortified about 20 miles southwest of Chicago have promise — for now — of warding off a massive invasion. The corps is cranking up the juice just in case.
The barriers, so big and powerful they have cost taxpayers more than $40,000 worth of power each month, will require an undetermined increase in utility funds starting next month. Even now, they send enough electricity into the water to kill a human upon impact.
Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the corps’ Great Lakes and Ohio River division, acknowledged that most young and tiny Asian carp were not deterred by electroshock therapy in a laboratory setting, probably because of their confinement. In the field, though, all Asian carp it studied stayed away from the electrical barriers. The corps was able to study Asian carp down to 1.7 inches in length, slightly larger than the 1.4-inch length those fish have as they emerge from their larval stage.
The corps’ study further validates 2009-2010 field work by the University of Notre Dame’s David Lodge, a modern-day Paul Revere. His researchers sent the region into a tizzy after they discovered DNA evidence of Asian carp on the Lake Michigan side of the electric barriers — a potential sign the barriers weren’t working. Though Mr. Lodge is one of the Great Lakes region’s top researchers and was the corps’ choice for that field work, everybody with a vested interest suddenly had an opinion about the quality of his work.
It was peer-reviewed and published in Conservation Letters, the flagship academic journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, and was vetted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Lodge found himself on the witness stand defending it in front of government lawyers last fall.
About 85 positive DNA hits for Asian carp have been documented beyond the barrier since sampling began in 2009, several this summer in a part of Lake Calumet that is less than six miles from Lake Michigan. It’s impossible to know how many carp may have eluded the barriers or if they are alive.
Asian carp, voracious eaters that have destroyed all ecosystems they’ve colonized, will go down in history as one of America’s greatest public policy debacles if Mr. Obama’s gamble is wrong. Their gradual migration upstream in the Mississippi River has been an ecological train wreck that the government inexplicably stood by and let happen for two and possibly three or more decades.
The carp were imported to eat pond scum at Southern fish farms, only to escape through floodwater. They are now, finally, banned from being brought into the country.
Plenty of blame can be passed around. But Mr. Obama was in charge when the issue rose to its inevitable crisis stage.
Mr. Obama appeased Chicago politicians in federal court by thwarting efforts by Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — each of the Great Lakes states except Illinois and Indiana — to close Chicago-area shipping locks at least temporarily.
“Instead of just turning up the electricity, we need to pick up the pace,” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said last week.
Mr. Obama pledged $5 billion in new funding for Great Lakes restoration during his 2008 campaign. Despite a crippled economy, allocations of $475 million and $300 million have been made.
But programs designed to clean up polluted harbors and curb sediment runoff mean nothing if history shows he blew it with Asian carp.
It’s a decision the President has to sink or swim with.