TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Members of Congress stepped up pressure on the federal government this week for fast action to prevent Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes, but an official said Wednesday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was awaiting instructions from lawmakers on how to proceed and money to pay for it.
Eleven senators representing six of the eight states abutting the Great Lakes sent a letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, asking a series of questions about the Corps' plan of action.
"We want to impress upon you the need to implement short-term measures to stop Asian carp from getting into the Great Lakes, and to move aggressively toward a long-term solution," the letter said.
It was signed by Democrats Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota; and Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Noticeably absent were senators from Illinois or Indiana, where there is strong opposition to the approach favored by the other states: physically separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds by placing structures in the Chicago waterways, which offer an aquatic pathway for the carp to reach Lake Michigan.
Dave Wethington, project manager for the Corps study, said Darcy would provide a detailed response to the senators' letter, but the agency is waiting for the region's elected leaders and advocacy groups to agree on a solution. Ultimately, he said, authorization and funding would have to come from Congress.
"There are a lot of players ... who have a vested interest so it's not an easy problem," Wethington said.
Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican, introduced a bill in February that would require the Corps to design and build a separation project.
The Army Corps, which operates navigational locks in the waterways and an electric fish barrier in a shipping canal near Chicago, released a report in January with eight alternatives for blocking migration of Asian carp and other invasive species between the two giant drainage basins. It included two proposals for physical separation but said they would cost up to $18 billion and take 25 years to complete.
Supporters of separation contend the job could be done sooner say a phased-in approach may be needed. In the meantime, they are pushing for short-term steps that could hold off the feared bighead and silver carp -- Asian species that were imported to the Deep South decades ago and have infested the Mississippi and its tributaries. Scientists warn if the voracious plankton eaters reach the lakes, native fish could go hungry.
In the letter, the senators asked about creating a buffer zone at the downstream edge of the network of rivers and canals making up the Chicago Area Waterway System. One alternative in the Corps report includes placing an electric fish barrier at the location near Joliet, Ill., along with a new type of lock designed to let vessels pass through but prevent invasive species from joining them.
The letter says those steps could serve as an interim solution. It asks what Congress can do to get them started and what the costs and time frame would be.
Wethington said rough estimates suggest such an approach would cost about $1 billion and require three to five years, but more study would be needed.