WASHINGTON — Navigational locks and gates in Chicago-area waterways crucial for shipping may be opened less frequently than usual under a $78.5 million campaign to prevent Asian carp from overrunning the Great Lakes, federal officials said Monday.
The plan falls short of closing the navigational structures entirely, as demanded by Michigan and five other Great Lakes states. They fear the locks will provide an opening to the lakes for the giant carp, which some scientists say could devastate the region's $7 billion fishing industry.
But the Obama administration described the plan as part of an effective strategy for keeping the invasive fish at bay while long-term biological controls are developed. The government said it would take 25 actions to slow the advance of the carp, which can reach 4 feet long and 100 pounds.
Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, called the plan "an unparalleled effort on the part of the federal government."
"Today, we have an opportunity to work together to prevent environmental and economic damage before it happens," Sutley said after talks Monday with several governors from the region.
But Michigan officials said nothing short of closing the locks would give the lakes adequate protection. State Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican running for governor, accused President Barack Obama of letting politics dictate policy.
Obama "proved today that he'll do anything to protect the narrow interests of his home state of Illinois, even if it means destroying Michigan's economy," Cox said.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat and strong Obama supporter, said in a phone conference she didn't believe "there is any parochialism happening. I do believe there are great and honest differences of opinion."
Sutley also denied political motivation: "We are taking actions based on science."
Bighead and silver carp, Asian species imported to cleanse fish farms and sewage plants in the Deep South, have been migrating up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers for decades. They have infested rivers and canals near Chicago, and their DNA has been detected in Lake Michigan itself, although no actual carp have been found there.
The Supreme Court last month refused Michigan's request to order the locks and gates closed, a move opposed by the Obama administration and Illinois. They argue that closing the locks would cause millions in losses for barge operators and could lead to flooding.
Michigan last week asked the high court to reconsider and is pushing ahead with a separate lawsuit that calls for permanently severing the century-old, man-made linkage between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. Joining Michigan in the dispute are Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Obama administration's strategy, announced Monday, calls for modifying operations of the navigational structures by April 30. It says four scenarios are being considered, including opening two primary locks for just three or four days a week, or closing the locks one week per month or every other week. Another option is continuing to operate them normally.
When the locks are opened, poisons would be spread in the waters to kill any Asian carp lurking nearby.
Granholm said she feared the measures wouldn't be enough. "You have to permanently shut these locks down," she said.
Administration officials said a $10.5 million contract will be awarded to build a third electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, a crucial link with Lake Michigan. The two existing barriers emit pulses designed to repel the carp and give them a non-lethal jolt if they don't turn away.
Also pledged was $13.2 million for construction of barriers to prevent the carp from bypassing the electric devices by slipping into the canal from the adjacent Des Plaines River during flooding.
An additional $9.5 million will be spent to promote commercial fishing of carp, research chemical treatments to kill off the carp if the electric barriers fail, and study other control techniques such as preventing carp from spawning or developing poisons that would kill the carp but not other fish.
Agencies also will speed up their analysis of DNA samples and continue exploring the waterways in hopes of determining whether Asian carp have actually gotten past the electric barriers — and if so, how many.
The carp battle involves the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the navigational structures; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Fish and Wildlife Service; and the Coast Guard. State and local agencies also are taking part.