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Blocking carp only part of Army Corps' $15 billion plan

CHICAGO -- It might be back to the drawing board for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' sweeping proposal to spend billions of dollars and 25 years to block an Asian carp invasion of the Great Lakes.

Buried within the Army Corps' 10,000-page study, and teased out in interviews with agency staff and legal experts, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that some controversial -- if not inaccurate -- interpretations of federal and state water laws are driving much of the project's astronomical costs and epic timeline.

The bulk of the Army Corps' $15 billion-plus estimate to restore the natural separation between the Lake Michigan and Mississippi River watersheds is yoked to projects that

critics contend have little to do with directly stopping invasive species. They include some $12 billion to build things like new reservoirs, sewer tunnels and water treatment plants, as well as remove contaminated river sediments.

"The media has fixated on the $15 (billion) to $18 billion figure, and a number of politicians equate that with the price tag for (watershed) separation," said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, a body appointed by the region's governors and legislatures. "We don't accept that. We think that's based on flawed assumptions."

Chicago dug its canals more than a century ago to reverse the flow of its namesake river -- and all the sewage discharged into it -- so it flowed away from Lake Michigan and into the Mississippi River basin.

Governors and regional political leaders have grown increasingly concerned about these canals as global trade has made the waterways a man-made conduit for things like the jumbo carp from China, a fish-killing virus from the Atlantic and pipe-clogging mussels from the Caspian Sea to migrate between two of America's grandest watersheds.

This is how zebra and quagga mussels made their way out of the Great Lakes and into the Mississippi basin, which sprawls across 40 percent of the continental United States, from Montana to New York to Texas.

This is why 17 attorneys general -- from such far-flung states as Arizona and West Virginia -- demanded in 2011 that the Army Corps expedite the study on how to re-separate the watersheds.

And this is the reason all 16 U.S. senators from the eight Great Lakes states wrote the Army Corps in November urging it to move quickly to somehow close what's been dubbed an "invasive species super-highway."

The Army Corps originally planned to complete the $25 million study in 2015, but with Asian carp knocking on the door to the lakes, Congress demanded it be finished by the end of 2013.

The study contains eight scenarios to block the rapacious Asian carp species that threaten the lakes' ecology and multibillion dollar fishery.

The two options that have drawn the most attention call for restoring the natural divide between the two watersheds, because this would be the most effective way to halt the transfer of unwanted species -- and because those options call for so much money and time.

"The assumptions used in the report create the impression that the corps thinks this situation is not urgent. Well it is," Eder said. "We need action and we don't have 25 years to wait."

Pollution confusion

Problems with the plan start with the Army Corps' definition of pollution.

First, the agency assumes that if Chicago's sanitary canals are dammed so that some portion of their flows enters Lake Michigan, the water leaving Chicago's sewage plants in that direction must be clean enough, essentially, to drink.

"The anti-degradation regulations under the Clean Water Act restrict the addition of significant pollutant loads" to Lake Michigan, explained Army Corps study leader Dave Wethington.

Then, because it would be wildly expensive -- if not impossible -- to use a sterilization process such as reverse osmosis to clean those sewer plant discharges to virtual drinking water quality, the agency is proposing a costly labyrinth of tunnels to continue whooshing the discharges away from the lake and into the Mississippi basin. Other tunnels would carry away from the lake the city's sewer overflows that currently go straight into the Mississippi-bound canals.

But if Chicago were allowed to discharge a portion of its highly treated, if not Perrier-pure, effluent into the lake -- as do Milwaukee, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland and every other major Great Lakes city -- the project's cost would plummet.

Critics say what the Army Corps has ignored is that Asian carp are also an added pollution load, one that could be far worse for the lake than highly treated effluent. The Army Corps didn't factor the carp into any future pollution load equation, because the carp cannot be considered a type of pollution, Wethington said.

"The definition of 'pollutant' under the Clean Water Act does not include living organisms," he noted.

Nonsense, says Great Lakes water law expert and Wayne State University law professor Noah Hall.

"The corps' statement is flat-out wrong. The Clean Water Act definitely includes biological pollutants, and courts have consistently interpreted living and dead biota as pollutants," Hall said. "It really worries me that if the corps got a simple legal fact like this wrong in this process, they are either inept or so biased that it's very hard to trust their work."

The idea of invasive species as a pollutant is, in fact, the essence of a landmark lawsuit brought against the navigation industry more than a decade ago. A federal judge ruled in 2005 that ship owners must treat their invasive species-contaminated ballast water discharges like other pollutants under the Clean Water Act.

Critics say that in choosing not to view Asian carp as a pollutant, the Army Corps backed itself into a corner when considering a range of potential solutions to the canal problem.

"The assumption of 'no return flow' to the Great Lakes -- no matter how clean and well-treated -- and the assumption that invasive species are not serious pollutants -- no matter how dangerous -- skews the analysis and limits the solutions to impractical and exorbitantly expensive proposals," said Henry Henderson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who previously served as Chicago's commissioner of environment.

"It's a deeply ironic -- if not cynical -- use of environmental principles to block an environmental solution."

David Ullrich is a former deputy regional director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who now leads a group representing Great Lakes mayors. His group partnered with the Great Lakes Commission in 2012 to pay for their own study exploring how to repair the divide between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi basin that the Chicago canals destroyed more than a century ago.

That study concluded the project could be done for as little as $4.25 billion and that canal dams could be in place in a matter of years, not decades.

Ullrich said this separate study was ordered to ensure that the Army Corps, an agency whose focus is to keep cargo flowing and manage floodwaters, would give the concept of plugging the canals "fair consideration" in its own study.

Now that he has seen the Army Corps' conclusions, does Ullrich believe his own study got things wrong in estimating that the work could be done much quicker and cheaper than the Army Corps has stated?

"No," he said. "There is nothing here that convinces me of that."

Chicago sewage

Every other Great Lakes city cleans its sewage in a multistage process that screens and settles out the solids, unleashes microbes to digest the leftover waste and then disinfects the water.

What comes out the end of those sewage treatment plant pipes is, under normal operating conditions, water clean enough to not harm Great Lakes beachgoers. It's also clean enough, with dilution, for the lakes to remain a drinking water source for Great Lakes cities from Toronto to Milwaukee to Duluth.

Chicago does things differently.

Chicago's canals have long allowed the city to get away with something that distinguishes it from major American cities. It does not disinfect its sewage.

It removes the big stuff, but sends bacteria-laden discharges back into the canals to let nature bake it out on its way toward New Orleans. (Under pressure from the federal government, Chicago has agreed to install disinfection equipment at two of its smaller treatment plants, but not at its largest plant, billed as the biggest in the world.)

Jim Ridgway, an environmental engineer and board chairman for the Alliance for the Great Lakes who worked on Ullrich's earlier study, said the Army Corps' plan to stop the carp would not just subsidize an upgrade of Chicago's wastewater system to catch up with the rest of America, it would build a wastewater conveyance, storage and treatment system like no other on the planet.

He notes the Army Corps' proposed tunnel and reservoir system is designed to capture floods up to those triggered by a 500-year storm -- a tempest so severe it would be expected to happen, as the name implies, maybe only twice every millennium. That is a standard far beyond what other cities' wastewater systems are designed to withstand.

The Army Corps' Wethington said the 500-year threshold reflects the fact that storms are getting bigger, and designing a barrier system that could fail under a lesser storm creates undue risk.

Just as frustrating to study critics is the proposal to capture sewer overflows in reservoirs and then pump that water back to treatment plants once the storm subsides. This is not driven by the need to protect the city's Lake Michigan drinking water supply. Remember, the Army Corps plan would use the tunnels to divert sewage treatment plant discharges and sewer overflows into the Mississippi basin.

This means the plan calls for spending decades to build a reservoir system that would help protect water quality in the Mississippi-bound canals. The same canals where right now, every day, Chicago flushes fecal-laced sewage discharges. The same canals where signs all along their banks warn the water is not safe for human contact.

Wethington said the proposed reservoirs are the result of consultations with state and federal water-quality regulators, but he acknowledged these are just "assumptions," and ones that are subject to change.

"We took a conservative approach by designing the alternatives to be compliant with all applicable laws and regulations," he said "Further detailed design and discussions with relevant regulatory agencies may refine some of those assumptions."

Ridgway said the government might decide to build some projects, such as dams, to withstand a 500-year storm to avoid a catastrophic loss of life, but not to keep bacteria out of waterways.

"It is never used for water quality related stuff," he said. "Ever."

Some see the proposal to build the exceedingly expensive, time-consuming tunnels and reservoirs as evidence the Army Corps flubbed its responsibility to develop a long-term solution to the immediate Asian carp problem -- perhaps intentionally.

"If you actually wanted to solve the problem," said Thom Cmar, an environmental attorney and Great Lakes advocate, "you would not have gone about it this way."

Sediment trap

Another controversial assumption is the plan's approximately $2 billion cleanup of contaminated sediments in canal and river segments that lie east of the proposed dams, where water flows would be reversed toward Lake Michigan. The Army Corps maintains this is needed to meet water laws protecting Lake Michigan.

Critics say contaminated sediments in Chicago waterways are an environmental problem whichever way the water flows; their removal, like that of PCB-laden mud in the Fox River near Green Bay, is a separate issue from stopping the carp.

Yet another factor driving the project's astronomical cost is that Chicago would not be able to send sewer overflows into Lake Michigan.

All Great Lakes cities -- even Chicago -- use their lake as a safety valve to alleviate street flooding and basement backups by discharging untreated sewage straight into the lakes after big storms hit.

When exceptionally heavy rains hit Chicago, canal navigation locks along the lakeshore are opened to allow stormwater and sewer overflows to spill into Lake Michigan instead of onto city streets and into basements, though even with this practice flooding remains a chronic problem in the Chicago area.

Since 2008, Chicago has discharged more than 31 billion gallons of sewage-laced wastewater back into the lake, according to records provided by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

That's more than three times what Milwaukee dumped over the same time period.

Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, which has a history of suing Milwaukee over its sewer overflows into the lake, said it would be wonderful to eliminate sewer overflows, flooding and contaminated river sediments in Chicago.

But these things are not about stopping a fish.

"The obligation to solve these problems exists already," he said. "It is not created by the Asian carp."