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When it comes to Asian carp, let's err on the side of safety

Aug 8, 2017

When scientists were working on the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, there was a brief moment when some thought there was a small chance it might ignite the entire atmosphere.

Which would have meant good-bye life on earth. Enrico Fermi, who had a puckish sense of humor, took bets on whether the test of the bomb would destroy the world, or only New Mexico.

Eventually, new calculations showed essentially no chance of that. But I’ve always wondered what would have happened if there had in fact been a one percent chance, say, that the bomb would have destroyed the world. Would the military and the bureaucrats have said, “That’s a risk, but we’ve spent billions on this, so let’s test it anyway?”

That could have happened. I know that because the reverse is true. We are curiously reluctant to spend money to counter major environmental threats.

Take the finally released report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on how to prevent Asian carp from moving into the Great Lakes, something that would have devastating consequences for everything from fishing to tourism.

The Trump administration refused to release this for months, probably because they don’t want to pay to deal with this threat. What the Corps suggests is building what sounds like a Rube Goldberg apparatus to keep the carp out.

There would first be an electric barrier designed to zap them enough to chase them away. If they made it past that, there would be an underwater noise generator to scare them away. (I wonder if it would play country music at full blast, or maybe heavy metal.)

And if that still didn’t stop them, there would be some device to flush any surviving carp back downstream.

The cost of all this was put at $275 million dollars, two-thirds of it paid for by the federal government. The states would have to pay about $8 million a year to maintain it.

What we don’t know is whether Washington will be willing to build this, and if they’ll try to cut corners and do it on the cheap. We also don’t know if they will get it done in time, or if it would work.

According to their calculations, if they don’t build it, there is a 29 percent chance that the two species of Asian carp, the Bighead and the Silver, eventually get into Lake Michigan.

If they do build it, the chance falls dramatically, but there would remain a 13 percent possibility the carp get in.

Plus the system, even in a best case scenario, wouldn’t be finished until 2025. Given that carp have been found only nine miles from Lake Michigan, what are the chances they going to wait?

There is, however, a much more surefire way of stopping the carp: Permanently close the lock connecting the man-made canals from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. That would knock the chances of the invasive species getting in to a mere two percent.

That, however, would disrupt shipping and cost private industry a lot of money. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

But if 20 years from now sport fishing on the Great Lakes has all but disappeared, and boaters are having their arms broken by leaping silver carp, you’ll know we didn’t do enough.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.