Birkholz wont wait for carp or US agency

February 25, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Former state senator Patricia Birkholz, whose environmental record indicates she is not inclined to stand back and watch another ecological accident happen in the Great Lakes, has a problem with Asian carp and with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Birkholz says that as a former state senator, state representative, county official and Saugatuck Township trustee, she has had many official dealings with the Corps over the years.

“They have one speed,” she said, “and it’s slow.”

Birkholz, who chaired the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee before she was term-limited out of the Legislature, was recently named by Gov. Rick Snyder to direct the Michigan DEQ’s Office of the Great Lakes. She said she is very encouraged by the start last month of a private, fast-track study to develop options and cost estimates for physically separating the waters of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River, while also improving transportation, water quality and flood control in the Chicago area.

The project, Envisioning a Chicago Area Waterway System for the 21st Century, began in January after $2 million to pay for it was raised mainly by private funders, including the Frey Foundation and the Wege Foundation, both of Grand Rapids.

Mike Cox, the former Michigan attorney general, had sought an emergency federal court order closing two navigation locks in Chicago and a long-range policy of shutting off the network of canals that connect the Mississippi and Lake Michigan. A federal judge turned down Michigan’s request in December.

At the same time, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania are still pursuing a federal lawsuit seeking to sever the man-made Chicago-area connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. The canals provided navigation between the Mississippi and the lakes for more than 100 years.

Although there is ongoing debate about whether Asian carp have actually gotten into Lake Michigan, ecologists fear that if they do, they could quickly wipe out native species.

At a Water Law Seminar sponsored last week by Varnum Law, Birkholz said the Corps of Engineers also is studying the feasibility and costs of cutting off Lake Michigan from the Chicago waterways, but the Corps has said officially that its study won’t be done until 2015.

“But if you talk to them off-mic,” said Birkholz, “most of them will tell you it’s really going to be 2016 or maybe even 2018” before the Corps’ study is actually completed.

“We just don’t have time for that. Our whole eco-system in the Great Lakes could be decimated by then,” she told the Business Journal after the seminar.

The private study being led by the Chicago office of HDR Engineering Inc. was launched by the Great Lakes Commission representing states and provinces, and by the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, representing mayors. One of the 12 U.S. and Canadian mayors serving as directors of the Initiative is Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell.

Birkholz said HDR Engineering is “supposed to be the best and brightest (consulting) firm that deals in large projects like this. You can’t just go to Joe the Builder” for physically separating Lake Michigan from the waterways connected to the Mississippi River.

According to the Great Lakes Commission, which is based in Ann Arbor, HDR has a “highly qualified, multi-disciplinary technical team with expertise in hydrology and hydraulics; environmental engineering; lock, dam and canal engineering; ecology and fisheries biology; transportation planning and commercial logistics; sanitary engineering; regional planning; and economics.”

Driving all this activity are Asian carp, an invasive fish that Birkholz said she could spend all day discussing. Although Asian carp have been migrating up the Mississippi toward the Great Lakes for two decades, urgency intensified in June 2010 when a live Asian carp was caught in Lake Calumet above electronic barriers installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and just six miles from Lake Michigan.

“We’ve known for several years that Asian carp were coming up the river — it’s not like this is new news — but now it’s at the point where the (environmental DNA) has been found in Lake Michigan,” said Birkholz.

Last fall, researchers with the University of Notre Dame and The Nature Conservancy collected water from the Galien, St. Joseph and Paw Paw rivers to determine whether two of the more obnoxious of the Asian species, bighead and silver carp, have actually made it into those rivers. Notre Dame reported in February that it found no Asian carp DNA during lab analysis of the river samples.

“That’s good news,” said Birkholz. “It means we have an opportunity here” to continue to try to find a way to keep them out. We’re not going to (be able to) stop what’s already there. We have EDNA evidence that they are in Lake Michigan, but knowing that they haven’t gotten into the three inland rivers is good.”

In southern Illinois, Asian carp have wreaked the most havoc in river systems. According to Birkholz, some scientists have said the cooler Michigan rivers aren’t conducive to Asian carp proliferation, “but they’re not sure.”

Both the Great Lakes Commission and the Cities Initiative have taken positions favoring separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi system as the best approach to keep the invasive fish from entering the Great Lakes and threatening businesses, tourism and the $7 billion sport fishing industry.

The HRD study, which is designed to support the work of the Corps of Engineers’ Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study, will be completed by the end of this year, with the results expected in January 2012, according to Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission.

An estimated 180 invasive species of animals and plants are now in the Great Lakes Basin, according to Birkholz, and some have already cost the residents of the Great Lakes states millions of dollars. The zebra mussel, for example, is a native of the Caspian Sea, but came to America in the ballast of ships pumped out in the Great Lakes as the ships were being loaded. They attach themselves to hard surfaces and produce millions of offspring annually, blocking boat exhaust systems and intake pipes for power plants and public water filtration plants on Lake Michigan.

Birkholz said a representative of a public utility company told her several years ago that divers had to be sent down to clear intake pipes of zebra mussels as often as three times a year.

People whose water supply comes from Lake Michigan are “all paying for that,” she said. “Those guys don’t go diving down there cheap.”

A spokesperson for the city of Grand Rapids’ Lake Michigan Filtration Plant said hundreds of thousands of dollars were initially spent to remove zebra mussels and install a chlorination system at the point of intake in Lake Michigan. The intake chlorination system now operates continuously to discourage zebra mussels from becoming established inside the pipe.

Many boat owners on waters connected to Lake Michigan keep their boats hoisted above the water now to prevent infestations of zebra mussels.

As a state legislator, Birkholz was involved in passage of legislation that permitted the use of chemicals to treat inland lakes for infestations of Eurasian milfoil and other invasive water plants. Milfoil forms dense mats of vegetation on the surface, interfering with swimming, fishing, water skiing and boating. It reproduces extremely rapidly and can infest an entire lake within two years. Once well-established, it is difficult or impossible to remove.

Birkholz told the attendees at the Varnum Water Law seminar that many people who live on the Great Lakes take these natural resources for granted. She said that when she met with representatives of LG Chem, the Korean battery company building a plant in Holland, the one thing that seemed to impress the Koreans the most about the region was Lake Michigan.

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