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Faster study a small step toward stopping carpDespite promised speed-up, feds still have far to go in protecting Great Lakes from Asian carp
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) ' The Obama administration's promise Tuesday to quicken its search for a way to shield the Great Lakes from Asian carp and other invasive species ' once and for all ' is more a baby step than a giant leap toward a solution that could be in the works for years or even decades.
Under intense pressure to accelerate the process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said by the end of next year it would release a short list of methods for preventing organisms from migrating between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds. Congress and the public could decide which they prefer.
Previously, the corps had insisted it would need until late 2015 to recommend a permanent fix ' a timetable challenged by five states in a federal lawsuit and legislation proposed in Congress. Critics say faster action is needed as the huge, aggressive carp that have infested the Mississippi River and many of its tributaries bear down on the lakes, where they would gobble up food needed by native species and further disrupt ailing ecosystems.
"We're pretty excited we're going to be able to move things along a little more quickly than we anticipated," said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.
The corps will offer a menu of choices ' it's undecided how many ' it considers feasible and likely to gain wide support, Darcy said.
She and John Goss, Asian carp program director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, didn't guarantee that the revised timetable would put a final solution in place sooner. But they said it would enable Congress, which would have to choose and pay for a plan, to begin evaluating options.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Rep. Dave Camp, both of Michigan, praised the announcement but said much remains to be done. They're sponsoring legislation to set an 18-month study deadline. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to require completion by July 2014.
Environmental activists and many elected officials say the only certain solution is physically separating the two giant drainage basins by placing dams or other structures at key points in Chicago-area waterways that form a direct link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi.
That method is sought in a federal lawsuit filed by Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Several organizations have produced studies suggesting how separation could be achieved.
Supporters of separation said the corps should immediately endorse the idea instead of continuing the study. The promised acceleration is "a mild positive step but not a game changer," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office.
Thom Cmar, an attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, dismissed the announcement as "a total non-event."
"Spending the next year-and-a-half ruling out options that the corps should have ruled out from the very beginning does not strike me as progress," he said.
Darcy said basin separation is among options under consideration, but the corps has a congressional mandate to consider other possibilities. Scientists and engineers are experimenting with dozens of methods, from chemicals that would lure Asian carp into traps or prevent them from reproducing to annoying the fish with lights or noise.
If the corps recommends separation, it's uncertain whether Congress would agree. Chicago business interests are strongly opposed, saying it would disrupt cargo shipping and cause flooding.
And the project would require lots of time and money. A report in January by the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative outlined several alternatives for separation with estimated costs ranging from $3.2 billion to $9.5 billion. It said the job could take until 2029 to complete.
Despite such obstacles, there's wide agreement that something must be done.
More than 185 aquatic species have invaded the Great Lakes over the past century. Blood-sucking sea lamprey decimated lake trout and other popular sport fish. Zebra and quagga mussels have clogged water intake pipes, spread disease and unraveled food webs.
Many scientists and sport anglers fear Asian carp, which escaped from southern fish farms and sewage lagoons decades ago, would deal another huge blow to the lakes and their billion-dollar fishing and tourism industries.
The Obama administration has spent more than $150 million on a short-term strategy that includes tracking and removing Asian carp in the Chicago waterways and reinforcing an electric barrier meant to halt fish migration.
Critics say the barrier is inadequate because carp DNA has been detected beyond it, although federal officials say it's performing well. The barrier lost power for 13 minutes last week for unknown reasons.
Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, said the Army corps' decision to accelerate the study is welcome, "but what we need is a solution."
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