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Asian carp have been making their way up the Mississippi River system for years after escaping from fish farms and wastewater treatment ponds in the southern U.S.They’re knocking on the door of the Great Lakes, and a number of people are concerned about what could happen if carp become established in the region.In this five-part series, we’ll take a look at what officials are trying to do to keep the fish out, what might happen if carp get in, and why some people want to turn carp into a business opportunity.

Decide what to do about Asian carp

Destroying things is easier than building them. It takes months to build a house, but you can destroy one in an afternoon. What’s baffling is that we always seem more willing to destroy than to build.

It is far easier to get lawmakers to approve money for war than to build things. For example, we spent at least $2 trillion on our 10-year war in Iraq. It would be interesting to try and explain what we got for it, other than about 200,000 dead people.

Congress easily approved that money. But imagine trying to get our elected representatives to approve anything like that sum to rebuild our nation’s roads and bridges and major cities. No one would even dare try.

I am mentioning all this because of a report released this week – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report on the options for keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. If you don’t remember, we are talking about two species of fish, bighead carp and silver carp that escaped into the Mississippi River more than 20 years ago.

They’ve been working their way north ever since, and present a clear and present danger to the Great Lakes. They are huge and they are ugly and they eat everything in sight. Silver carp have been known to jump into boats and severely injure people, in at least one case, breaking someone’s jaw.

Their bigger threat, however is to the ecology and economy. Once they get established in the lakes, biologists say native fish populations are certain to decline, and native waterfowl as well. That could be the ruin of sport and commercial fishing and game bird hunting on the lakes.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, we are talking about more than $7 billion a year, not even counting the indirect impact. Pleasure boating would also be affected.

For some the Corps of Engineers’ report was a disappointment. That’s because it didn’t say flatly, “here’s the one easy way to fix this.” Well, guess what. That wasn’t their job.

Instead, they sketched out a number of options and estimated the time frame, costs and risk assessments. Which is what they were supposed to do.

It’s our elected leaders’ job to make decisions, and it is clear to anyone familiar with this what the right one would be: Physically separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi, mainly by closing off the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

This would actually restore things to normal, since the canal was artificially created in the late nineteenth century. But that’s probably not going to happen. Short-sighted Illinois shipping interests are dead set against it, because they’d lose money.

President Obama is from Chicago, and supports them. And then eyes bugged out at the $18 billion the study said that would cost. Nobody mentioned that would be less than one percent of the cost of our glorious war in Iraq.

Plus, nobody would die. So what is likely to happen is that we will fool around with halfway measures until the carp become firmly established and it is too late. We need some leadership here.

Otherwise, the carp win. Which, if it happens, would be the most unnecessarily humiliating development of all.

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

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