It's become a modern day marvel here in Chicago. Every year now, for almost five decades, the city has dyed the Chicago River Irish green to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Seeing the green river wind through the cityscape during mid-March is a local custom that city residents and tourists have grown to know and love here in the Windy City. President Obama even took his hometown tradition with him to Washington -- turning the waters green in the fountain on the White House lawn.
But every other day of the year, the Chicago River also serves as a vital shipping lane -- the only connection between the St. Lawrence Seaway in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the South. Every year over a million tons of goods travel through area locks, supporting area jobs, keeping trucks off our highways, and minimizing the carbon transport of shipping those goods. It's off-putting, then, to consider that various groups needlessly continue a quest for closure of the locks on the city's river.
The calls for closure within Chicago's waterway system started in full force back in 2010. Around that time, reports regarding Asian carp started to garner increasing attention when anglers in southern parts of the state began catching and harvesting more and more Asian carp. Politically motivated environmental groups seized the opportunity to use a minor spark about Asian carp migration to fuel a frenzy.
The result? Full-blown Asian carp hysteria. Rather than collaborating on control measures downstream, lock closure advocates bee-lined for the courts to achieve their predetermined outcome. Led by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the legal lock closure crusade went nowhere fast. In a U.S. District Court, Judge Robert Dow rejected the plea for lock closure in December 2010, opining that the states failed to show that closing the locks immediately was essential to blocking the Asian carp's path to Lake Michigan.
A solution for Asian carp control won't be found in a courtroom. And, thanks in large part to research efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers, experts realize that closing the locks will never be a solution for keeping these fish out of Lake Michigan.
In fact, there are over 18 aquatic pathways throughout the region by which the Asian carp could get into the Great Lakes. The good news is that the potential entry point in Chicago is the most protected of them all, guarded by three high-powered electric control barriers.
Also, lost in all of this has been a very significant detail: Asian carp population centers in Illinois have not actually moved up river in six years. In fact, the closest potential breeding population to Lake Michigan remains about 50 miles downstream of the electric barriers, according to the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, which leads federal, state, and local control efforts. Even still, the Chicago lock closure campaign continues.
Nobody wants to see the Asian carp spread further. Thankfully, federal and state leadership are succeeding in making sure that never happens by reducing populations, identifying unprotected pathways and monitoring the population of carp to gauge success.
It's a shame that so many of our Great Lakes neighbors put these facts aside to keep the carp hysteria alive. If we work collaboratively to protect the Great Lakes, everyone is better off.
Mark Biel is Chairman of Un-Lock Our Jobs, a coalition of agriculture, business, labor, river communities, and concerned citizens working towards a comprehensive solution to stop the spread of Asian Carp, while leaving the Chicago locks open to commerce, and a project of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois.
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