A group of lawmakers on Wednesday said the idea to stop the spread of the invasive Asian carp by permanently separating waterways linking the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes should be looked at with increased urgency.
Democratic U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced the "Permanent Prevention of Asian Carp Act" in the Senate to speed up research. Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan introduced it in the House.
The bill introduction comes after officials announced last week that an Asian carp had been found for the first time beyond electric barriers meant to keep them out of the Great Lakes. Commercial fishermen landed the 3-foot-long, 20-pound bighead carp in Lake Calumet on Chicago's South Side, about six miles from Lake Michigan.
The legislation would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete research on so-called hydrological separation within 18 months. The Army Corps, which has said research could take up to five years, said Wednesday it couldn't comment on pending legislation.
"While this method would require a complex feat of engineering, we need to understand the costs and benefits and whether this method offers the best hope for a long-term solution for containing not only the carp, but other invasive species," Durbin said in a statement.
Instead of passing through the current network of canals and rivers, boats and barges might one day use massive boat lifts, for example, to bypass the blockade. However, the costs and workability of such a plan are unknown.
Jim Farrell, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce's Infrastructure Council, said there are other options that should be explored to keep the carp at bay, such as expanding electric barriers, conducting fish kills and keeping low oxygen levels in some waterways so fish couldn't live or pass through.
"A physical barrier which would require the stopping of barges and the reengineering of water management in the Chicago region is likely to be a dead end," Farrell said.
Asian carp can grow to as many as 4-feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds, and biologists fear the ravenous fish could devastate the lakes' fishing industry. For decades, Bighead and silver carp have been migrating up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers toward the Great Lakes. Two electric barriers, which emit pulses to scare the carp away or give a jolt if they proceed, have been a last line of defense.
If enacted, the study would be required to begin within 30 days. The Army Corps would be required to send a progress report to Congress and President Barack Obama within six months and again in 12 months.
A hearing is planned on Asian carp for July 14, Stabenow said. The study, the lawmakers said, would address the possible costs of such a project, as well as flooding concerns and the effects on Chicago's waters and boat traffic.
There are no natural connections between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi basin. More than a century ago, engineers linked them with a network of canals and existing rivers to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and keep waste from flowing into Lake Michigan, which Chicago uses for drinking water.
The U.S. Supreme Court twice turned down a bid by Michigan and other Great Lakes states to close locks leading to Lake Michigan to block the carp. In a conference call with reporters, Camp and Stabenow said they'll continue to fight to shut the locks while the possible permanent separation is studied.
"We'll have to see what they come back with," Stabenow said of the possible study of permanent separation by the Corps. "It has to happen as fast as possible while we continue to press for the locks to be closed."
In the Senate, the new legislation also is co-sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y; and Roland Burris, D-Ill.
In the House, the legislation is co-sponsored by Michigan Democratic Reps. John Dingell, Dale Kildee, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Sander Levin, Gary Peters, Mark Schauer and Bart Stupak, and Michigan Republican Reps. Vern Ehlers, Pete Hoekstra, Thaddeus McCotter, Candice Miller and Fred Upton.