Wisconsin Joins Legal Battle to Stop Asian Carp
[excerpted from the Journal-Sentinel]
Wisconsin has entered the multi-state battle against Illinois and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop an Asian carp invasion of the Great Lakes.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday in support of Michigan's recent motion to force the state of Illinois and the federal government to shut down a couple of navigational locks that provide an artificial link between Lake Michigan and the adjacent carp-infested waters of the Mississippi River basin.
Wisconsin now joins Ohio and Minnesota in supporting Michigan's push to reopen a nearly century-old Supreme Court case over Chicago's diversion of Lake Michigan water down the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
That canal was built at the turn of the last century to flush Chicago's sewage away from the city's drinking water intake pipes in Lake Michigan. It was hailed as an engineering marvel at the time, but it spawned a lawsuit from neighboring states that argued it created an illegal diversion of Great Lakes water that resulted in a permanent drop in water levels.
The case began in the 1920s and technically remains open. In 1967, the Supreme Court capped Chicago's daily diversion at 2.1 billion gallons. Still, the justices ruled at the time that if the adjacent states can demonstrate that the diversion is causing them harm, they could bring the case back into court.
Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox thinks an Asian carp invasion fits that bill, and he wants an emergency injunction to shut down the locks that are the last remaining barrier between the super-sized, jumping carp and Lake Michigan. He also wants "action to permanently separate" the waters of Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin.
Re-separating the two grand drainage basins would be neither easy nor cheap. It would force big changes in the way Chicago treats its human waste because sewage discharges presumably would have to be re-channeled into Lake Michigan instead of down the canal and into the Illinois River to the Mississippi. It also would significantly disrupt the barge industry that emerged after construction of the sewage canal.
Barge industry advocates say even a temporary shutdown of the locks could put 400 barge-related jobs in jeopardy and severely disrupt the businesses that depend on the cargoes that float on the canal. The barge industry group American Waterways Operators, for example, says nearly $1 billion of petroleum products alone moves through Chicago-area locks annually.
Fishing industry threat
Still, conservation groups and politicians say the leaping fish pose a dire threat to the Great Lakes' $7 billion fishing industry and other recreational businesses.
Van Hollen noted in his filing that sport fishing on Wisconsin's Great Lakes supports 5,000 jobs and generates more than $400 million in annual economic activity.
The worry is the invading carp, which can grow to more than 50 pounds and consume up to 20% of their weight in plankton per day, will devastate the prized species that lure anglers to the lakes.
The carp also could squelch recreational activities such as water skiing and personal watercraft riding because of the fish's penchant for leaping out of the water and smacking unsuspecting boaters.
"The infiltration of Asian carp into Lake Michigan may have serious adverse environmental and economic consequences to Wisconsin's waters and industry," Van Hollen said in a statement. "This action seeks to ensure that the integrity of Lake Michigan is not harmed by the introduction of these carp."
Van Hollen's office said it is not clear when the U.S. Supreme Court might take up the issue, but on Tuesday his Minnesota counterpart said the court could consider the matter as early as Jan. 8.
The justices might agree to hear Michigan's request to close the locks and reopen the case over the diversion; they might decline; or they might send the case to another federal court.
The push to force changes in the way Chicago manages its water has gained widespread regional support in recent weeks that cuts across political lines. Wisconsin and Michigan have Republican attorneys general, Ohio and Minnesota have Democrats in that office.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of 50 members of Congress representing the Great Lakes states - including both of Wisconsin's senators - fired off a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency, urging top officials at each agency to "immediately consider" re-establishing the natural hydrologic separation between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin.
And now the Supreme Court justices are being asked to weigh in on a case that has been dormant for decades.
"This is really unique, unusual litigation," said Noah Hall, a Wayne State University law professor who was instrumental in crafting the recent Great Lakes compact that restricts most water diversions out of the lakes. "There is no standard playbook for any of this."
Illinois Attorney General spokesman Robyn Ziegler said Wednesday that Illinois also is preparing a brief for the Supreme Court that should be filed within the week.