February 12, 1809 – Tall Man of Destiny

Be sure to check out the local exhibit.

Update on the Asian Carp Threat: What Can We Expect Going Forward?

Today I attended a subject matter hearing at the Thompson Center regarding the Asian carp issue. Moderated by Illinois State Senator Susan Garrett and Senate Environment Committee, the hearing featured presentations and discussions by the following organizations and panelists:

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Colonel Vince Quarles (Commander of the Chicago District)
The Nature Conservatory: Lindsay Chadderton (Aquatic Invasive Species Director)
Illinois Department of Natural Resources: Marc Miller (Director), John Rogner (Assistant Director)
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Bill Bolen (Great Lakes National Program Office)
Metropolitan Water Reclamation District: Ed Stadacher (Waterways Operations)
Alliance for the Great Lakes: Joel Brammeier (President)
Illinois Commercial Fishing Association: Kirby Marsden (President)
Schafer Fisheries: Mike Schafer (Owner)

The hearing also had a short “Open Forum” section featuring the following additional stakeholder organizations and representatives:

Metropolitan Planning Council: Josh Ellis
Natural Resources Defense Council: Henry Henderson (Director)
Sierra Club: Jack Darin (Director)

There was a lot of really good, in-depth discussion on the current status of the Asian carp threat and what might happen in the future were it to successfully establish a presence in the Great Lakes. I’ll try to distill the key points of the hearing down to the essentials. So here goes…

1) There are two non-indigenous “Asian Carp” species that threaten the Great Lakes – the bighead carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis) and the silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix).

Both of these species are native to the large rivers and associated floodplain lakes of Northern and Eastern Asia (primarily China), and both feed by filtering plankton from the water. Because they are so good at this, the bighead carp and silver carp were imported to the U.S. in the 1970’s to help control algae growth and improve water quality in sewage treatment plants and aquaculture facilities. The silver carp is infamously known as the “jumping carp” due to its proclivity for leaping out of the water when startled.

2) The bighead carp is already in the Great Lakes.

Bighead carp have been reported in Lake Erie as early as 1995. Since then, other large adult bighead carp have been either captured or spotted in Lake Erie. However, there is no indication that they have established a breeding population (more on that below). Here is a very recent map by the U.S. Geological Survey indicating the current territory of the bighead carp.

3) The Illinois River is heavily infested with both bighead carp and silver carp – and there is pretty strong evidence that they are both very close to entering Lake Michigan through the Chicago water system.

The fish kill conducted last December in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal uncovered the presence of a bighead carp near the Lockport dam. However, environmental DNA (eDNA) testing of the Chicago waterways has indicated the potential presence of both bighead and silver carp as far up as Calumet Harbor and the Wilmette Pumping Station. Previous tests had only indicated a positive presence of the Asian carp eDNA as far upstream as the Calument Sag Channel:

The eDNA findings are significant. The tests are designed to detect the specific cellular debris (mucus, feces, urine, and remains) of only the bighead carp and the silver carp. And more importantly, ratios of eDNA between the two species varies by the location tested. This makes it highly unlikely that the eDNA was carried upstream in the ballast water of barges.

4) If either or both Asian carp species enters Lake Michigan via the Chicago waterways, they may or may not be able to develop a self-sustaining population.

This is the wildcard issue that we cannot yet address with 100% certainty. Both the silver carp and the bighead carp are certainly quite capable of surviving in the Great Lakes. In their natural setting, both species are big lake fish. However, both species need river systems to reproduce successfully. And therein lies the rub.

Both Asian carp species rely on long stretches of river currents (up to 100 kilometers) to keep their eggs in suspension during spawning. Without such currents, the eggs sink to the riverbed (or lake bed) and become inviable. So even if the bighead carp and silver carp manage to invade Lake Michigan, it is questionable as to whether the water dynamics of the Great Lakes can provide such lengthy and constant currents.

Nevertheless, these two carp species are quite adaptable. Despite being lake fish by preference, both the bighead carp and silver carp can live in slower moving rivers or in low velocity habitats in rivers. And they can also adapt to – and thrive in – large lakes with limited river systems feeding into them.

Hungary’s Lake Balaton is often cited as a comparable case study for what we might see in the Great Lakes. Lake Balaton is a fresh water lake about 1/5 the size of Lake Erie with a similar climate and water chemistry. The silver carp was introduced into Lake Balaton in 1972 and has since become a thriving, self-sustaining species – all without needing 100 kilometers of free flowing, undammed river water to reproduce.

So where do we go from here?

As you can see, this is not an easy issue to address. And there’s millions of dollars on all sides of the issue at stake which further complicate us finding a simple and elegant solution.

Many conversationalist groups advocate sealing off the canal system altogether and restoring the Chicago water system to its natural pre-canal ecosystem. But these ideas are quickly dismissed as unfeasible by the water reclamation district which warns of catastrophic flooding and water contamination that might result.

And while these various stakeholders polemic their respective causes, the INDR and USACE keep stepping up their efforts to contain the silver carp and bighead carp before they breach the electric barriers – provided they haven’t done so already.

So I’ll continue to stay on top of this and keep you all informed on any new updates as I hear about them. In the meantime, my recommendations would be to heed the timeless wisdom of Douglas Adams – Don’t Panic.

Important – Read This! Chicago’s Winter Lakefront Hazards

After I scoped out the swim site yesterday, I decided to check out the lakefront at North Avenue Beach. The cumulative winter winds and waves over the past 20-30 days have created a fairly continuous ice shelf that extends out quite a ways over the water:

Unfortunately, many people walk over this without even realizing that there is essentially nothing underneath them but an icy lake:

Remember – just because there’s ice on top doesn’t mean that there’s dry land underneath supporting it.

An Open Letter to Chicago's Lakefront Highrise Residents

Dave was out clearing the ice off of Ladder #1 yesterday and took this shot:

As you can see, the big wave action earlier in the week froze over onto the concrete embankment. In some areas, the ice was over three feet thick and quite hazardous to anyone who might be walking near the lake’s edge. Which reminds me…

A few days ago, a Chicago woman was frolicking near the lake at night with her dogs and had an unfortunate accident:

…the outing turned perilous when she and her dogs slipped off an ice-covered break wall into freezing Lake Michigan and were unable to climb out.

Although this incident took place down in Hyde Park, the circumstances are practically identical to those at the lake front area just north of Oak Street Beach. Bottom line, if you fall in anywhere off of the north or east break walls, there is no way for you to get out of the lake unless you swim the 1/2 mile to Oak Street Beach (which I can personally attest is quite a chilly experience this time of year).

This is one of the biggest reasons we hound the Park District every Labor Day to keep as many ladders as possible in place at Oak Street Beach throughout the year.

So if you happen to see one of us out at Ladder #1 clearing off the ice, please note that it’s not just so we can have an easy entry and exit to go swimming. It’s also to provide a quick exit for anyone who might have the bad luck – or foolishness – to inadvertently fall in.

Because without the proper gear or preparation, you’ve got about three minutes left on your life clock once you hit the lake this time of year…

Ladder #1 Winter Image (Retro)

Believe it or not, this is what our swim area looked like this time of year in 1936!

(Source – Chicago Tribune)

Happy Winter Solstice!

Happy 80th Birthday Paul!

Paul Meador, a long time Ladder #1 stalwart, turns 80 years young today. Per Dave:

Paul has been guarding Ladder #1 at Oak Street Beach for at least 78 years (I have seen the photo of Paul with his father [at the lake] when he was two years old).

Congrats Paul!

Asian Carp Dilemma

Check out yesterday’s Tribune piece, “State waging chemical war on Asian carp tonight.” In a last-ditch effort to prevent the fish from gaining access to the Great Lakes, Illinois Department of Natural Resources is using the pesticide rotenone.

(Tribune photo by William DeShazer / December 3, 2009)

A not-too-well-known factoid – a 2003 study conduced by the National Institute of Health concluded the following:

Chronic exposure to rotenone, a common herbicide, reproduces features of Parkinsonism in rats.


Diverting the Lake Michigan Watershed: A Brief History of the Chicago Canal System

Last week I attended the very thought provoking event called Water: The New Oil? The featured speaker was Debra Shore, a Commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Her presentation provided a very comprehensive overview of the unique geography of the Chicago metropolitan area. But what I found to be particularly fascinating was how one simple canal has substantially impacted Lake Michigan and our water supply.

I spoke with Debra briefly after the event, and she was kind enough to have her office forward some of the presentation graphics for this posting. So let’s take a look at the unique geography of Chicago and how the modification of this geography has affected what’s known as the Lake Michigan Watershed.

Around 15,000 years ago, the entire Great Lakes basin was covered in glacial ice more than a mile thick in some areas. As this massive ice shelf receded, it carved out countless fissures and valleys, redistributing vast amounts of soil in the process.

One of the local by products of this glacial retreat was the formation of the subcontinental divide, a ridge of raised earth that separated the Des Plaines river basin from the Chicago River and Calumet River basins. Modern day Harlem Avenue roughly runs over this raised section of terra firma.

Historically, the Des Plaines River drained westward into the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, eventually reaching the Gulf of Mexico. By contrast, the Chicago and Calumet rivers drained into Lake Michigan.

An important item to note here is that any rain that fell to the east of the subcontinental divide served as a significant source of fresh water replenishment for Lake Michigan.

Up until 1900, the Chicago River was the city’s defacto “sewage system.” With human and industrial waste being expelled directly into Lake Michigan, the mouth of the Chicago River was a literal cesspool. And the now prime real estate known as Streeterville was a disease-ridden squatters’ camp nicknamed “The Sands.” In fact, the Chicago lakefront was so polluted that the only way to effectively provide clean drinking water was to build the water intake cribs two or more miles out in the distance. But by the late 1800’s, even that wasn’t far enough away.

So the city planners at the time came up with a radical solution – namely, to reverse the flow of the Chicago River by creating a canal from the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River. And in 1900, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was completed:

In order to do this, however, they had to create a breach in the subcontinental divide and disrupt an ecosystem that had developed and existed for thousands of years.

Before the Canal

After the Canal

There are two things to note here:

1) Fresh water sources (i.e. rain water) that used to drain eastward into Lake Michigan via this watershed now instead flow westward

Here’s a graphic which illustrates the diverted portion of the watershed that now no longer replenishes Lake Michigan:

2) Lake Michigan itself is now draining into the Gulf of Mexico

Bottom line, since 1967, when more accurate measurements began, it is estimated that over 30 trillion gallons of fresh water have been taken away from Lake Michigan.

The key point here is that we’re witnessing Newton’s Law on a grand scale. Namely, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When you radically alter an existing system in nature – even if it is for a seemingly noble purpose – you’re going to get a radical reaction somewhere down the line. And it may not be an instant and obvious one, either.

So keep all this in mind whenever you look out on Lake Michigan. And don’t let its vastness mislead you. Remember – it may be big, but that doesn’t mean it’s infallible.

Should the City of Chicago Lease its Water System?

There’s a very interesting piece in today’s Chicago Tribune highlighting the speculation that the City of Chicago is considering privatizing its water system much like it has done with the parking meters and the Chicago Skyway.

Check out the whole thing and feel free to comment. I’d be interested in everyone’s opinion on this.