By Gary Wilson
One of the things I never understood when Asian Carp DNA was discovered near Lake Michigan in November of 2009 is why the federal, state of Illinois and local authorities didn’t act swiftly to temporarily close the locks leading to Lake Michigan.
The locks are the last line of defense and closing them would have been the most basic of precautions, given the unknowns, as the experts tried to figure out the magnitude of the problem. Even the most strident opponents of closure, the barge industry, could have understood a temporary closing.
But the locks remained open and were presented as being “leaky” and not really an impediment to the advancing carp.
That singular decision damaged the credibility of the agencies charged to repel the carp advance and their action that followed was looked at with skepticism.
The rest of the region clearly didn’t buy the “leaky” explanation and legal action ensued which continues today.
Now the federal government, Illinois and mostly Chicago are faced with the unintended consequence of having a spotlight put on their stewardship of the Chicago waterways system and how they interact with the rest of the region.
The region’s political capital
Chicago is one of four U.S. cities that would qualify as world class if such a ranking existed. New York, Washington and San Francisco are the others.
It is a Midwest city like no other with its dynamic economy, vibrant city life and beautiful and “forever open, free, and clear” lakefront thanks to the foresight years ago of city planner Daniel Burnham.
When I attend Great Lakes conferences in Chicago, I frequently hear participants remark how they wish their town had Chicago’s attributes.
Essentially, Chicago is the economic, cultural, and de facto political capital of the Great Lakes region.
It exerts much more influence on the well-being of those five lakes than is justified by its meager few miles of shoreline or by how little of greater Chicago is even in the Great Lakes basin.
Chicago is home to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program office, the Council of Great Lakes Governors and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.
The top adviser for the Great Lakes to the EPA administrator lives in Chicago. The Army Corps of Engineers, which currently touches so many issues, has a base here.
And the first president to really focus on Great Lakes restoration, Barack Obama, is from Chicago. His former chief of staff is now running for mayor of the city.
Legal issues? Well, the aforementioned lawsuit on lock closure and broader issues is in front of a federal judge in, yes, Chicago.
The not-for-profit Alliance for the Great Lakes is located in Chicago, as is a Great Lakes office for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Is that concentration of policymaking, influence and power good for the entire region?
Well, that’s my question and I think it is a fair one worth examining.
Before Asian Carp were discovered at the door-step of Lake Michigan, I don’t believe many of us knew of the influence Chicago organizations had over the Great Lakes. If we did, we probably didn’t care.
But that has changed as the carp crisis has spotlighted the Chicago and Illinois power structures.
Now, Chicago’s role in Great Lakes management and its own environmental practicies are under examination.
A few examples:
- Always a sore point but begrudingly accepted is the fact that Chicago is allowed, by Supreme Court decree, to divert 2 billion gallons of water daily from Lake Michigan. This happens while smaller communities have to jump over hurdles and do logistical gymnastics to have access to a few million gallons if they are barely outside the Great Lakes basin.
- Chicago is the only major city that doesn’t disinfect its sewage – the sewage in the Chicago River which flows to St. Louis.
- Toss in Chicago’s staunch refusal to close its locks as demanded by its neighbors and you start to see a pattern. Chicago may not be so world class when it comes to Great Lakes and water stewardship.
In addition to the lawsuits, the region’s editorial boards have opposed how Illinois-based agencies have handled the carp advance. References have been made to the area’s reputation for bare-knuckled politics and use of clout.
To put it bluntly, the rest of the Great Lakes region isn’t pleased with what they perceive to be favorable treatment for a city and state that have only a dot of Great Lakes shore.
Are they right?
Are Chicago and Illinois receiving preferential treatment on the carp issue to the detriment of the other Great Lakes states?
Do greater Chicago and Illinois have too much influence over the Great Lakes given their minimal geographical footprint?
I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist so I have my doubts. But I also think it’s a reasonable question to ask.
No matter what happens with Asian Carp, their advance toward Lake Michigan has had the unintended but positive consequence of shining a light on the impact that Chicago and Illinois have on the Great Lakes.
We should all welcome the scrutiny.