At this moment, there are countless Asian carp steadily making their way northward, swimming upstream throughout the Mississippi River basin, and encroaching into new territory in South Dakota, Minnesota, and most infamously, into the manmade canals on the outskirts of Chicago. These canals connect the Mississippi River basin with a jewel of the Midwest, the Great Lakes. The Chicago Area Waterway System represents ground zero for the threat of a full-scale Asian carp invasion into the Great Lakes.
Asian carp are well-known as an insidious and malignant invader, outcompeting native species and leaving millions more Asian carp in their wake of disruption.
The fight against Asian carp has reached a critical juncture. The groundwork that is being laid now, by Healthy Water Solutions and our many partners, will help determine the course of an entire region, including its greatest water resources—the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.
At risk are not only the well-being of our waters and wildlife, but billions of dollars annually in the Great Lakes region’s fishing and recreation industries.
This is a big problem in need of a big solution. A solution constructed from a grand vision that sees beyond a fish, a canal, and the 2 volts of electricity currently used to repel carp.
Presently, the last line of defense between the carp and the Great Lakes is a small stretch of electrified water in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with operating this “barrier,” continues to offer assurances that the electric barrier is working, but their actions belie such assertions. Corps studies have shown that the barrier may not be effective against smaller carp. Over the last year, the Corps has raised and lowered the voltage of the barrier multiple times, citing safety concerns. Meanwhile, Asian carp DNA continues to be found past the electric barrier, raising concerns that some live carp have moved across the barrier and towards the Great Lakes.
And there are more threats besides Asian carp. The Corps has released a study indicating that Asian carp are among 39 high-risk invasive species poised to transfer between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes via the Chicago Area Waterway System. Many of these other species would not be deterred by electrified water.
There are real solutions, however. The construction of a permanent, physical barrier in the Chicago Area Waterway System would effectively prevent the transfer of carp and all other invasive species by restoring the natural divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Healthy Water Solutions is working towards this solution, and we are gaining momentum. We have been presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-imagine the future of our waters. Permanent separation would be a grand project, but one made of workable, achievable upgrades to the Chicago Waterway System, spreading broad benefits throughout the entire Chicago region.
Those benefits are beginning to be identified. In 2012, the Great Lakes Commission released “Restoring the Natural Divide,” a year-long study on permanent separation.
Others have recognized the significance of this moment as well. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced plans to turn the Chicago River into a major destination for tourists and residents, calling it “the next recreational frontier.” Some of the nation’s best and brightest, like Chicago architect and MacArthur Genius grant winner Jeanne Gang, have been put to the task of planning and designing a bold new future for the river.
Encouragingly, these diverse threads are converging as part of an ongoing and inevitable program to clean up the Chicago River and restore it to a place of prominence within urban life.
Permanent separation, the only viable solution to the threat of Asian carp and other invasive species, will be a necessary piece of this river renaissance.