Great Lakes governors request federal funding for project to deter invasive carp

The Brandon Road Lock and Dam, along the Des Plaines River near Joliet, Ill., on Feb. 1. Its next Asian carp-fighting phase is expected to take three to four years to complete. Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Great Lakes officials are calling for federal funding of the massive engineering effort in Illinois to keep invasive Asian carp out of one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the world.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker was among those who signed on to a December letter from the bipartisan Council of Great Lakes Governors asking Congress to provide funding in the 2022 Water Resources Reform and Development Act for the remaining costs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Ill.

Among the $858 million project’s goals are keeping invasive carp from upending the Great Lakes’ ecosystem and protecting the region’s $7 billion fishing industry. The fish — including bighead and silver carp — have made their way toward Chicago and, capable of reproducing at a rapid pace and gobbling up a lot of plankton, threaten to cause serious problems for other aquatic organisms.

Controlling invasive species is among the great challenges in the Great Lakes, where the bloodsucking sea lamprey once devastated fisheries, and zebra and quagga mussels have blanketed entire lakes.

Illinois, the project’s nonfederal sponsor, signed an agreement with the Army Corps in December 2020 to complete the preconstruction engineering and design phase, estimated at $29 million and expected to take three to four years. Illinois and Michigan committed to providing the nonfederal share of just over $10 million.

But, the letter says, “the balance of project cost for design, construction, operation and maintenance is beyond the capacity of the Great Lakes States to match.”

The nonfederal cost share of the overall project is 20%.

Great Lakes advocacy groups have previously supported federal funding of the project, arguing the invasive carp threat extends across the entire region.

And there is precedent for large-scale federally funded projects, said Marc Smith, policy director for the National Wildlife Federation, including the electric barriers near Romeoville designed to keep out invasive fish, and the Soo Locks in Michigan.

“We really can’t afford to add any more hurdles to this project, because the longer we wait, the more chance that carp can get into the Great Lakes and cause the economic damage that we all fear,” Smith said.

There’s contingency built into the overall price, and it could lower significantly, but even then without federal assistance, Illinois could be responsible for a large bill.

Reaching the design phase of the project followed years of planning and ideas as wide-ranging as an $18 billion option of separating Lake Michigan from the river. Then Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration was hesitant in its support of the Brandon Road option, questioning the costs and rejecting Michigan’s $8 million offer on his way out of office.

Plans for the Brandon Road site include a combination of technologies to deter carp: an electric barrier, underwater sound, an air bubble curtain and a flushing lock.

Loren Wobig, water resources director at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, previously likened the Asian carp effort to the strong offense and defense needed on a football team. Commercial fishing for carp and monitoring efforts are part of the offense, he said. The Romeoville barriers help with defense.

“With Brandon Road, we’re essentially adding a very successful linebacker to our defense,” Wobig said.

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