Points North: Congress Must Stop Thinking and Start Acting to Protect the Great Lakes

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A group of lawmakers 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, according to a recent news story the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

And anyone who cares about the Great Lakes can only reply, “Ya think?”

Nero at least fiddled while ancient Rome burned. Congress, faced with an impending ecological disaster, is thinking about thinking about it. Meanwhile, Asian carp, with proven potential to explode in numbers and overwhelm an aquatic ecosystem, are beginning to enter Lake Michigan via the Chicago Canal. Wanna know how big of an environmental problem this may become? Watch nightly newscasts of a troublesome oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The easy solution to the carp problem—permanently blocking the canal—ain’t gonna happen. Both the Administration and the U.S. Supreme Court have said no to proposals to seal off this source of invasive species. Carp or not, the canal is unnatural abomination—a river reversed by man so that it flows out of Lake Michigan and into the Mississippi drainage. While we hear lots of pious talk from politicians about not allowing water to be removed from the Great Lakes, this diversion has sucked water away from more than a century. Now it is a pathway to trouble.

Currently, all that prevents Asian carp, not to be confused with the nonnative common carp already infesting our waters, from entering the Great Lakes are electric barriers which are not 100 percent effective. In fact, the barriers have already been breached. An Asian carp was recently captured in Lake Calumet, which is on the Lake Michigan side of the barrier. So the carp are already ahead of Congress.

To be fair, congressional leaders from the Midwest, including members of the Minnesota delegation, are trying to move the Asian carp issue forward.  But they are reacting to a crisis, rather than demonstrating forward-thinking, ecologically responsible leadership. The problem with invasive species is not new. But Congress hasn’t seriously tried to find a solution.

Sea lampreys and zebra mussels, the two best-known invasives, entered the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway decades ago, and the resulting environmental damage and subsequent remediation permanently changed ecosystem and was horrifically expensive for taxpayers. While the government, using our tax money, funds lamprey and zebra mussel control, it hasn’t addressed the primary vector for invasives, which is the St. Lawrence Seaway and the ocean-going vessels entering the Great Lakes.

The reason, of course, is that making changes to the Seaway or the Chicago Canal to protect the Great Lakes doesn’t have the support of the special interests currently profiting from the movement of goods through these waterways. Nor does the protection of the Great Lakes appear to be a priority for the nation’s environmental community. As a result, Asian carp may very well become the next Great Lakes environmental disaster and taxpayers will foot the bill for addressing carp calamities.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have the engineering prowess to devise both barriers to invasive species and the means to efficiently transport goods around them. Sure it will be expensive—but so the was the original construction of the Seaway. All it takes is the will to do it.

In the meantime, the government will do what it does best—stick it to the little guy. In the name of preventing the spread of invasive species, the Minnesota DNR celebrated Independence Day with an enforcement blitz targeting small boaters and going by the inglorious name of “Pick It or Ticket Weekend.” Across the state, boaters were confronted by conservation officers who inspected their trailered watercraft to make sure they pulled drain plugs, emptied live wells and picked all specks of aquatic weeds boats and trailers. Forget to do any of the above, and you are a criminal in the eyes of the state and may receive a ticket.

Granted, we all should do our part to prevent the further spread of troublesome flora and fauna, but is not pulling the drain plug on your boat really a crime?  More to the point, why does the government so rigorously go after average citizens while failing to address the real issues associated with the introduction and spread of invasive species? Something is wrong with this picture. It’s time for Congress to stop thinking and start acting...now.

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