Illinois pols won’t back separation; environmental groups whiff on carp report

Gary Wilson

By Gary Wilson

Great Lakes Echo

The path to separating the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes became tougher to navigate last week when Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin weighed in on the Army Corps’ Asian carp report.

Though popular with some, complete separation of the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan would be one of the most costly water projects in the nation. I have seen these long-term projects languish for years and fall victim to Congressional inaction. We can’t gamble by pursuing a risky plan at the expense of our current efforts, Durbin said.

It’s the last thing separation proponents wanted to hear from Durbin who isn’t a senate backbencher. He’s the second-ranking member of the majority party.

The Durbin press release said he looked forward to considering the “more practical options” in the  report. Translation: not the $15 billion to $18 billion, 25 year plans.

Environmental groups want physical separation and nothing less.

Durbin’s Senate colleague offers them no solace. Sen. Mark Kirk is full force in favor of the status quo.

“We need an effective, scientifically sound solution, which includes maintaining the electric barriers to protect Lake Michigan” Kirk said in a press release.  Later Kirk said he would “hyper-charge the electrical barrier to make sure it’s 100 per cent effective” according to the Chicago Tribune.

The electrical barrier is the current carp deterrent which many see as marginally effective.

Kirk has never advocated separating the two great waterways and he is co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, which gives him a bigger say.

What about Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn?

At last year’s Great Lakes Governors Summit, Quinn surprised everyone by saying that physical separation is the “ultimate solution” for dealing with Asian carp. Quinn was the first Illinois official to go that far. He immediately covered his bases by saying we have to be willing to pay for it.chicagoview

Quinn’s office declined to comment on the Corps report, referring questions to Department of Natural Resources director Marc Miller.

Miller said they’ll keep fighting the good fight against carp “until a decision is made on an appropriate long-term solution.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Obama administration Chief of Staff has been silent on the issue, which could be telling. The waterway to be separated runs through the heart of his city. Emanuel is silent on few things important to him.

Who will lead?

Not the White House.

It has provided money, the Carp Czar that environmental groups demanded and an ongoing management structure for the carp fight. That’s a lot from the most Great Lakes friendly president ever.

But it has declined to lead on the separation effort and has been combative in courts on issues like closing locks.  Plus, the White House’s Carp Czar John Goss stood shoulder to shoulder on the podium with Army Corps executives at the first public hearing in Chicago. And the White House’s top Great Lakes adviser, Cameron Davis, previously went on record saying “we’re winning the war on Asian carp.”

How does the separation option move forward without Illinois onboard, the White House on the sidelines and Congress in penny-pinching mode?  That’s what environmental groups are trying to figure out.

An environmental coalition led by the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Chicago office tried to put the best face on tough news.

In a press release, it said the report “leaves no doubt that the most effective way to stop invasive species from wreaking environmental and economic harm on the Great Lakes and Mississippi River communities is through the construction of a physical barrier.”

True, sort of.

There was no mention of the details like the $18 billion price tag, the 25 year timeline or that senators Durbin and Kirk in a bipartisan position had already thrown cold water on a long and expensive Army Corps initiative.

The coalition pitch included a reference to “overwhelming public support for physically separating the two systems.”

That’s a curious claim.

I’ve long-attended public hearings on Asian carp where closing locks and separating waterways are discussed. Public statements are along predictable lines.

Boaters, shipping and business interests favor aggressive action to stop carp but not separation and barriers. Environmental groups represent a contingent that want separated waterways and closed locks.

I took a closer look.

The basis for the “overwhelming public support” claim was polling and outreach done in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan according to Cheryl Kallio, a director with Freshwater Future, a coalition member.

Kallio said the poll did not have a dollar amount associated with the questions and it didn’t mention that protecting the Great Lakes is a shared responsibility among the eight states.

In Minnesota the poll questions about closing locks were specific to Minnesota not the Chicago waterways. Polling was not done in Illinois or Indiana, the two states most impacted by a physical separation project according to Kallio.

Those are omissions that smack of convenient polling and which shouldn’t be a basis for use of “overwhelming public support.”

I hold environmental groups to higher communication standards that are based on facts, inconvenient as they may be. Spin and half-truths are readily available from politicians and business. It’s the coin of their communication realm.

Great Lakes environmental groups can be skilled in media presentations.

This one was slick and raised red flags that made me want to fact-check every point.

They’d have done better with considered opinions and no spin. Instead they came out in ready, fire, aim mode.

And missed.

What’s next?

The Army Corps takes its report on the road with presentations around the region seeking public comment. That’s comment on a report that is finished and has already been sent to Congress.

And the project manager for the study, Dave Wethington, made it clear to me that the Corps isn’t taking ownership of defining next steps. It’s over to Congress and onto the lawmakers’ shoulders.

The environmental coalition is led by two of the region’s top executives  — Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes and Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. They’re working hard to digest the Corps’ report. When that’s complete a focus on substance, not slick talking points would be a good place to start.

But there’s no easy path to selling the expensive options in the Corps’ report.

That leaves the Great Lakes congressional delegation to figure this out.

Some in the region say we’ve got a delegation full of Great Lakes champions. I disagree.

Over the years they’ve done a competent job of supporting issues but not more than that. In basketball parlance they’re good at 10-foot jump shots — Great Lakes restoration funding for example after President Obama made it a budget priority. But this issue requires them to make a three pointer with little time left.

Stephen Henderson went further on Detroit Public TV’s MiWeek last week.

He said the Great Lakes congressional delegation “hasn’t been particularly persuasive in getting the rest of the country to focus on this issue.” Henderson is editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press.

That will have to change or physical separation and any option near it in cost and time will be dead on arrival in Congress.

The issue that generated the Army Corps’ study is only surpassed in importance by the Great Lakes Compact which keeps water from being diverted to other regions.

The region — politicians, the environmental coalition, business and the states — can’t afford to let this report languish. They need to use it to decide something, even if it’s keeping the status quo.

Opportunities of this magnitude to protect the Great Lakes are rare and they don’t last forever.


One thought on “Illinois pols won’t back separation; environmental groups whiff on carp report

  1. This Army Corp report is a key one but the Great Lakes Commission had a report with cheaper and quicker options.
    The Corps report lacks cost benefit analysis which they provide for permits on their projects – why not this one? The report includes the costs/mitigation for water quality and navigation in the Chicago area but the cost of Asian Carp to the rest of the Great Lakes is not there – the economic analysis is woefully out of balance. And seperation would reduce a large single source of nutrients negatively impacting the Gulf od Mexico.
    And lastly, there are major efforts in the Great Lakes to restore wetlands and natural waterways.. the Chicago River seperation project would be the ultimate of restoration projects.
    Corps design etc. for projects are historically the costliest way to do a project.
    I have served on committees for highways that follow the path of environmental review and cost benefit that list and then weight the pros and cons of each option – there is always a ‘no build’ as one of the initial options. In many ways the proposed seperation is a transportation project – let the transportation guru’s assess and propose…Transportation does more ‘bridge’ dam, etc. design and construction than the Corp…

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