TRAVERSE CITY - The federal government could more quickly implement a plan to keep the Great Lakes free of Asian carp if the region's citizens and elected officials agreed on the best approach to take, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official said Thursday.
The Corps has been accused of dragging its feet since releasing a report this month listing eight options for preventing the voracious carp and other invasive species from moving between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River watershed through Chicago-area rivers and canals. Several of the alternatives carry price tags exceeding $15 billion and would require 25 years to complete.
Dozens of speakers, from U.S. senators to sport fishermen, endorsed that approach during a public meeting in Traverse City - the fifth of nine gatherings the Corps is hosting with the White House Council on Environmental Quality to explain the report and get feedback.
Corps project manager Dave Wethington said such a massive reworking of Chicago's waterway network would take a long time and carry a hefty price tag, requiring the construction of extensive tunnels and reservoirs to prevent flooding.
But he said the pace would be determined partly by how soon the region settles on one alternative, which would enable the Corps to do further planning while supporters seek funding from Congress and the states.
"Our organization is looking to have ... at least that consensus voice on the path forward prior to studying anything further, just to ensure that there is an interest in actually moving forward," Wethington said in an interview.
Wethington said the agency has been meeting with state officials and members of Congress in addition to conducting the public meetings to get a feel for which option could gain the most backing.
The Corps has been impressed by the overwhelming support for physical separation and quick action at all the meetings, he said, although the first one in Chicago also featured impassioned pleas not to shut down waterways used by freight barges and tour boats. Illinois and Indiana business groups and elected officials also have spoken against physical separation and closing shipping locks, although Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn acknowledged last year that separation was "the ultimate solution."
People who spoke in Traverse City were virtually unanimous in support of complete separation.
"These fish are terrorists," said Charles Weaver, a river fishing guide. "They don't wear ski masks and they don't carry AK-47s, but they have just as much potential to disrupt our society, our culture, economy. When you have terrorists on the radar, you don't study it for 18 months and you don't come up with 25-year plans. You take care of the problem now."
Warren Fuller of nearby Leelanau County added, "We're in an emergency. Inaction is going to kill us."
U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, both Michigan Democrats, also called for dividing the watersheds and shortening the schedule. They said in interviews they were optimistic that the region could unite behind one plan.
Levin said lawmakers from the region would press the Corps to take short-term steps to strengthen defenses against the carp while continuing to refine a blueprint for physical separation.
"We all stand to lose, and certainly Illinois stands to lose as much as Michigan, if these fish get into Lake Michigan," Stabenow said.