Governor Pritzker signs federal-state agreement to protect Lake Michigan from invasive carp

Governor Pritzker signs federal-state agreement to protect Lake Michigan from invasive carp

Governor Pritzker signs federal-state agreement to protect Lake Michigan from invasive carp

Lake Michigan

Credit: Mike Kit from Pexels

After several months of back-and-forth, officials announced July 1 that Illinois had signed a partnership agreement that will allow construction of the $1.15 billion Brandon Road Interbasin Project to begin with significant federal funding.

The effort, decades in the making, will become the last line of defense on multiple fronts to prevent invasive silver and bighead carp from reaching Lake Michigan, where they pose a threat to Great Lakes ecosystems and the multibillion-dollar fishing and boating industries.

The announcement comes after weeks of experts and advocates urging Gov. JB Pritzker to meet the June 30 deadline so that $274 million in federal funding would not be lost and construction workers could take advantage of the upcoming scheduled closure of the lock and dam in Joliet.

Any further delay, they said, could have resulted in an irreversible disaster if the carp had continued upriver into Illinois waterways and overshot the electric barriers at Romeoville. If the agreement had not been signed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Rock Island District, which is overseeing the project, would not have been able to continue to allocate resources to preconstruction engineering and design.

“Protecting the Great Lakes has always been and always will be a priority for the state of Illinois, and after many years of this project eluding multiple administrations, I am thrilled to see it moving forward,” Pritzker said in a news release.

“Protecting the Great Lakes is not a task that any one state or city can tackle alone, and I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to forge a path that protects both Great Lakes and ensures that Illinois taxpayers don’t bear a disproportionate share of the burden.”

The project has been waiting for Illinois approval for a year, after the Michigan legislature authorized $64 million in June 2023 to help fund it. Those funds, plus $50 million from Illinois, will account for the required nonfederal cost share of the $114 million project.

“Complex agreements like this don’t happen overnight or quickly,” said Natalie Phelps Finnie, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “It took a tremendous amount of effort over many months to hammer out the details of this agreement. I’m thrilled that this important project can now move forward.”

At a virtual news conference in mid-June, where a group of local politicians, stakeholders and experts gathered to call on the governor to take swift action, Executive Director Jennifer Walling of the Illinois Environmental Council said approving the project was an opportunity for Pritzker to secure his legacy as a “champion” of the Great Lakes and Michigan’s “critical interstate partner.”

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, who supported the project and helped secure federal funding, urged Pritzker to authorize the project in a June 25 letter.

“You have expressed concerns about Illinois assuming sole responsibility for a project that benefits the entire Great Lakes region, and we understand and share those concerns,” the letter reads.

The federal government will pay 90% of the costs associated with construction of the Brandon Road Interbasin Project, and just last month, Illinois senators announced they had secured an increase in the federal share of post-construction operation and maintenance costs to 90% as well.

Illinois and Michigan have also signed a separate agreement to ensure that any additional costs as the project continues are shared and do not fall disproportionately on taxpayers in either state, the governor’s office said.

Concerns about land and real estate acquisition at the Brandon Road lock and dam presented a major hurdle, as private lands along the riverbank needed for construction are likely contaminated by a former coal plant.

Last year, experts told the Tribune that negotiations would be complex; the state was hesitant to buy the property from energy company NRG, which owns the land, and take responsibility for ensuring it was free of contaminants before turning it over to the federal government. Officials did not specify how or whether these concerns have ultimately been resolved.

Now that the agreement has been signed, interested parties are expected to apply in the coming weeks for contracts for fabrication, continued design and bedrock removal.

The innovative, multi-pronged plan to install a “gantlet” or layered system at a “critical point” on the Des Plaines River emerged from several years of collaboration among scientists, engineers and partners from numerous U.S., Canadian and tribal agencies surrounding the Great Lakes.

Invasive carp, particularly silver carp and bighead carp, pose a particular danger to aquatic life due to their large numbers and reproductive capacity. When they arrive in a new stream, river, lake, or any place where water comes into contact, such as wetlands, they can easily outcompete and starve native fish and mussels by consuming all the plankton at the base of the food chain.

Under the project, as silver and bighead carp approach the Joliet Lock and Dam, they will first encounter an acoustic deterrent and a curtain of air bubbles. The bubbles will serve as a physical barrier and also remove small fish caught under or swept away by barges.

Fish that make it through this curtain will pass through a channel designed alongside the current lock, at the end of which persistent carp will encounter an electric barrier like the one at Romeoville. A series of acoustic deterrents will then keep the carp at bay by creating painful sound waves. On the other side, a discharge lock will send the remaining larval fish and eggs downstream.

“Today’s agreement will help us get the important Brandon Road project up and running as quickly as possible,” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said July 1. “The Great Lakes are the heartbeat of Michigan’s economy, and Brandon Road will help us protect local communities and key industries, including fishing and boating, that support tens of thousands of good-paying jobs.”

In a July 1 press release, the Great Lakes Partnership praised what it called a historic agreement.

“The signing of the Brandon Road Project Agreement is historic and will help protect our fisheries, our economy and our quality of life,” said Marc Smith, policy director for the National Wildlife Federation. “Keeping invasive carp out of the Great Lakes is a national priority.”

Over the past few decades, since the invasive carp were introduced into the country in 1963 and escaped into the Mississippi River basin during floods in the 1980s and 1990s, dozens of other states have had to deal with the havoc they wreak on aquatic ecosystems. Silver and bighead carp have no natural predators in American waterways and likely never will, meaning their populations can grow out of control.

In recent years, as the fish continued to spread in the state’s waterways, Illinoisans, frustrated with the pace of state and federal deterrence plans, took matters into their own hands.

Some efforts focus on overfishing: The Village of Bath’s Original Redneck Fishing Tournament pits amateur and veteran anglers against each other in an annual competition; commercial fishermen or “carp cowboys” catch fish in other parts of the Illinois River; and state biologists have led large-scale removal efforts involving hundreds of thousands of pounds of carp on any given day.

Other creative efforts include using unmanned kayaks to gather information on large carp populations and attempts to create a market for the fish as a food source by rebranding it as “copi” and cooking it into tacos, nuggets, empanadas, and burgers.

2024 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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