UPDATE: The Army Corps of Engineers has responded to the Chicago Tribune article suggesting that it plans to close the locks. "We're not looking at any lock closures in a vacuum," Army Corps spokeswoman Lynn Whelan told NBC Chicago. "It's not going to be a quick decision. It's going to be part of a longer review process." Whelan said there is no time frame, no scenarios, and discussions are still in the "what if" phase.
Though it might not seem like it yet, March will be the official start of spring, and with it, the unofficial start of Chicago's boating season. By the end of the month, boat tours and charter trips will start drifting up and down the Chicago River and into idyllic Lake Michigan.
Unless, of course, the river is closed.
With the Asian carp crisis still unresolved, the Army Corps of Engineers is considering a range of options to keep the invasive fish out of Lake Michigan, many of which include closing the locks to the river and shutting down boat traffic.
"The Great Lakes face perhaps their most serious threat from invasive species yet in the Asian carp," said Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The carp grow quickly, reproduce prolifically and eat tremendous amounts of food, quickly starving native species and upsetting the food chain.
This poses a serious risk to the multi-billion-dollar fishing industry in the Great Lakes, and with the carp sighted closer and closer to the Lakes, states including Michigan, Wisconsin and New York have sought action from Illinois to stop its advance.
Illinois has been reluctant to close the river, though, because of the potential for harm to its shipping industry. And tourism would be affected, too.
Chip Collopy, president of Shoreline Sightseeing tours, told the Chicago Tribune that his business would be in serious trouble if the Army Corps of Engineers shut the river down. His boats traverse the lock near Navy Pier to access Lake Michigan. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think our company would be so severely threatened by a fish," he said.
The Army Corps has prepared a range of scenarios to deal with the problem. The most extreme would close the locks four days a week; less restrictive measures would keep the locks closed as little as one week a month.
So far, the federal government has refused to force closure, with the Supreme Court denying a Michigan plea to force Illinois to take action. But with pressure mounting, and carp DNA detected in Lake Michigan, some kind of action seems imminent.
Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, an advocate for action on the carp issue, told water-news site Circle of Blue, "It's not just about dollars, we need some action." And his fellow Michiganian, Senator Debbie Stabenow, described "a great sense of urgency" on the federal level.
"We know that these fish are on the move," she said.