Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has joined five of her colleagues in the region in a new effort aimed at keeping Asian carp and other invasive species out of the Great Lakes.
The attorneys general are urging more than two dozen states to join them in seeking a permanent separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River water basins.
Attorneys general across the Midwest have filed three lawsuits over the past few years to try to separate the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River. They argue that closing the Chicago system of canals that links Lake Michigan to the river basin is the only way to permanently keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.
"We've seen how destructive Asian carp have been in every body of water that they've invaded," Swanson said last July in advance of the third lawsuit. "Let's keep them out of the Great Lakes and make sure that they don't invade what is a very important resource not just to our economy but also to our environment in this country."
The district court ruled against Minnesota and the other states, saying they failed to show imminent harm to the Great Lakes.
Shipping interests argued closing the Chicago area canals would block more than $1 billion worth of goods each year. Proponents say the voracious Asian carp could devastate the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes fishing industry.
MIDWEST STATES APPEAL FOR HELP
Minnesota is one of five states appealing the decision. With their legal options waning, Swanson and others have launched a political effort designed to speed up the federal government's response to the spread of invasive species. Wednesday, they sent a letter to 27 attorneys general across the country, asking them to join together to pressure the government to act.
"What they're doing is they're illustrating that is a problem not just for the Great Lakes, but for the entire country," said Andrew Buchsbaum, director of the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation, which supports the separation plan. "We've been focused on invaders that could move up through the Mississippi River and into the Great Lakes like the Asian carp, but the door swings the other way as well."
Take zebra mussels. Buchsbaum said they invaded the Great Lakes in 1989. Now they've spread through the Chicago canals into the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri Rivers.
"The Chicago canals truly are an invasive species superhighway moving in both directions," Buschbaum said.
The government has spent millions of dollars on three electric fences and other measures in the Chicago waterway designed to keep carp out of the Great Lakes. That's worked so far, although Asian carp DNA has been found on the Great Lakes side of the barriers. Buchsbaum and others argue there needs to be a permanent physical separation between the Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin.
The Army Corps of Engineers is currently studying the issue, but they say they won't be done until 2015. The new letter from the attorneys general demands a quicker timetable.
CANALS SHUT TO CARP ONLY?
Meanwhile, a multi-state agency called the Great Lakes Commission is working on a second study slated for release at the end of the year. Policy Director Matt Doss said they're analyzing ways to separate the two water basins, but to also devise new methods like boat lifts that would still allow shipping through the canals.
"Ideally we'd like to find a solution that shuts the door on invasive species, but also maintains and, if possible, enhances the other uses of that system," Doss said.
Lynn Muench of the American Waterways Operators, the national trade group representing tugboats and barges, called that goal an "absolute pipedream."
"They have yet to prove that that will do anything positive," she said. "The economics of it will be horrendous. There's absolutely no way to move the goods that go up the river into the lake, and vice-versa, without increasing air emissions, and increasing traffic on the roads, and I don't think anyone wants to see that."
Muench believes enough work has been done in the Chicago canals to prevent the spread of invasive species, and that the government should instead focus on other areas. The Army Corps of Engineers has been checking other areas and has identified 18 other locations, from Minnesota to New York, where there's at least a medium risk of Asian carp migrating from one drainage basin to another.