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Illinois’ new governor says he supports the construction of a barrier to keep Asian carp from reaching Lake Michigan and intends to partner with other Great Lakes states to control invasive fish. 

In a shift from his predecessor, Gov. J.B. Pritzker told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month he generally supported plans to block invasive carp at a strategic lock and dam near Chicago.

Bighead and silver carp have infested the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and scientists believe that if the fish establish themselves in Lake Michigan and the other lakes, they could edge out native Great Lakes fish and threaten a $7 billion fishing industry.

But Pritzker, a Democrat, who took office in January, stopped short of a full-throated endorsement of the Corps’ plans and joined with the leaders of other Great Lakes states, including Wisconsin, in raising worries about spiraling costs of the project.

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Soaring costs for carp barrier 

The cost of building a system on the Des Plaines River to block Asian carp has jumped from a 2017 estimate of $275 million to $832 million, according to the Corps. 

The carp barrier, which Wisconsin officials now say has been delayed to a 2028 completion date, calls for a new self-contained canal and technological deterrents such as jolts of underwater electric current. 

Experts say that the leading edge of carp populations is about 50 miles from Lake Michigan, although in the summer of 2017 a 4-year-old silver carp was caught in a net about 9 miles from the lake. 

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In recent months, Illinois, Wisconsin and other Great Lakes states have written the Corps about the urgency of building a system to control carp at the Brandon Road lock and dam near Joliet, a key choke point.

Illinois' key role

Illinois’ role is pivotal since it would serve as the non-federal sponsor for the project. But it has yet to formally agree to do so. 

Under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Illinois had resisted plans for a barrier because of impacts on shipping between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. Also, Illinois officials said work to reduce downstream invasive carp populations were proving to be effective.   

Shortly before leaving office, Rauner rejected $8 million from the state of Michigan to help pay for engineering work, pointing to his lame-duck status and concerns over costs for Illinois that wouldn’t be known for years. 
  
Michigan is still willing to provide that funding under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office in January. 

“The funding remains available for that purpose,” Ed Golder, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said in an email. “We have had good, ongoing conversations with the state of Illinois.”
 
In a March 1 letter to the Corps, Pritzker asked for more time to “further consider the costs of the project, explore additional cost-sharing and partnership opportunities,” in addition to Michigan’s offer. 

In an email this week, Pritzker’s spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said: “The administration understands the threat Asian carp poses and will continue working with surrounding states to ensure plans to prevent the invasive species are cost-effective for every state involved.”

In Wisconsin, Todd Ambs, assistant deputy secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, said the state could be a financial partner.

“We certainly haven’t precluded coming to the table with some dollars, if needed, but step one is to get this actual study done,” Ambs said. 

Engineering and design work in 2020 — the first of three years of pre-construction work — is projected to cost about $3.8 million in federal funds and about $2 million in non-federal dollars, according to government estimates. 

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Donald Trump's budget

President Donald Trump’s budget earmarks $50,000 for barrier planning in 2020. 

The small sum for the barrier does not appear to be tied to Trump’s plans for higher defense spending for a wall along the southern border, according to Chad Lord, policy director of Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

Lord said wall funding would likely come from unobligated military construction funding, including for housing. 

“But President Trump clearly doesn’t invest in the Brandon Road dam,” Lord said. 

Both Wisconsin senators, Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, and Ron Johnson, a Republican, said they support additional spending to block carp from entering the Great Lakes. 

Ben Voelkel, a spokesman for Johnson, said, “the president’s budget is only a suggestion and Congress will produce its own document.” He added that Johnson believes Congress should provide a “sufficient share of the total projected cost.”

In a statement, Baldwin said that “President Trump has shown no love for our Great Lakes. His budget shortchanges our efforts to take on the urgent threat of Asian Carp, just as it proposed 90 percent funding cuts for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.”

The Great Lakes program, which is separate from money for the fish barrier, funds pollution projects.

Last week in Grand Rapids, Mich., Trump said he planned to provide full funding of $300 million in 2020 for Great Lakes restoration programs, even though his budget cut the program by 90 percent.

While Democrats and environmental groups expressed skepticism, the White House said in a statement:

“The president trusts his agencies and staff to implement his goals and visions, but when specific issues, like the Great Lakes restoration, are presented to him he has every right to take a different approach.”

Concern over delays

Wisconsin officials agree with other Great Lakes officials who say they are concerned about escalating costs for the barrier. In a Feb. 19 letter to the Corps, DNR Secretary Preston Cole noted the Corps factored in contingency expenses of $317 million — far above the norm for such projects. 

Cole also said the Corps appears to be pushing back the completion date of the project to 2028. Earlier estimates pegged the date at 2025. Last year the Corps had indicated 2027.  

“What we tried to emphasize is that the Corps, if anything, seems to be slowing down their pace, instead of speeding things up,” Ambs said.  

Molly Flanagan agreed. 

“Gov. Pritzker is taking a dramatically different approach,” said Flanagan, vice president of policy for Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“But we really can’t have any more delays. There has been delay after delay after delay.”

Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, has similar worries. She is chairwoman of the House subcommittee on energy, water development and related agencies. 

At a committee hearing on March 27 in Washington, she said, “I have a deep concern that we are not moving quickly enough.”

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, chief of engineers and commanding general of the Corps, responded that “we have seen a change in attitude in the state of Illinois.”

Once Illinois signs on, Semonite said the project “would compete very favorably because we know how important this is and we have seen a lot of momentum the last three or four months by everybody.”

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