Michigan’s contribution to a key project aimed at stopping the spread of invasive Asian carp has been put on hold as the state shifted funds last week to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a move supported by a bipartisan coalition of legislative leaders, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used her line-item veto powers in a supplemental budget bill to direct $150 million to the coronavirus response. That included vetoing an $8 million budget item to support re-engineering the Chicago Area Waterway System at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Ill. to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.
The Brandon Road Lock and Dam includes an electric barrier, underwater sound, an air bubble curtain and a flushing lock in a new channel for the waterway that’s intended to block the movement of invasive carp while still allowing ship passage into the Great Lakes.
The funds would have gone toward Illinois’ share of state matching funds needed for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a preliminary analysis and scoping of the project. Illinois had budgeted $2.5 million for its portion of the match, which could also face a cancelation or similar line-item veto, said Alda Yuan, associate attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
“If pandemic hadn’t happened and the line-item veto didn’t occur, the early stage scoping and research could be going on,” Yuan told MiBiz, noting that the project still needs Congressional approval before it can be appropriated. “So from a real practical perspective, how long it will actually be delayed because of this is unclear.”
A coalition of sportsmens and environmental groups said they understood that Michigan needed to make tough choices given the dire situation around the coronavirus, but encouraged legislative leaders to revisit the idea soon to protect the Great Lakes and its fisheries.
“Legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle were forced into making tough decisions — decisions that spanned much more than carp,” Amy Trotter, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said in a statement, noting the project is a “key priority” of the organization. “We will continue to seek out creative funding opportunities to move this project forward in the weeks and months ahead.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ project for the Brandon Road Lock and Dam, which early estimates peg at $830 million, would take shape at what scientists say is a key point in the system for keeping the invasive species out of the Great Lakes. While advocates have long prioritized measures to block Asian carp, their attention to the Brandon Road Lock and Dam project ratcheted up last November, when scientists announced that water samples tested positive for environmental DNA for Asian carp.
“Every year we wait to fund this project, material and construction costs rise and labor prices increase,” Taylor Ridderbusch, Great Lakes organizer for Trout Unlimited, said in a statement. “The monetary asks become more and more difficult the longer we wait.”
Advocates say the project is necessary to protect Michigan’s $2.3 billion sport fishing industry, part of the overall $7 billion industry across the Great Lakes.
Michigan announced it planned to support Illinois in moving forward with the project in November. DNR Director Daniel Eichinger at the time called preventing Asian carp “one of the most important things we can do to protect Michigan’s signature natural resource.”
Yuan said Michigan’s decision was “completely understandable,” but noted that the project remains a key priority for a broad group of stakeholders.
“There definitely will be more pressure to put this back on,” Yuan said of funding the project. “It’s an important issue — there are a lot of people’s livelihoods that depend on the Great Lakes that could be destroyed by invasive species.”