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Will new governor end Illinois’ inertia over Asian carp solution?

Will new governor end Illinois’ inertia over Asian carp solution?
March 18, 2019 Gary Wilson
Photo by Patrick Bray, U.S.A.C.E. via flickr.com cc 1.0

Advocate: Getting “great signals” from the Pritzker administration

New Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently took the first step to deal with the decade-old invasive carp issue he inherited.

In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, Pritzker said he “generally supports implementation” of the Corps’ $778 million plan to stop the carp advance at the Brandon Road Lock, a potential choke point some 50 miles from Chicago and Lake Michigan.

But Pritzker stopped short of a full endorsement, expressing concern about the plan’s cost which has mushroomed from an initial expense of $275 million to $778 million in the final version.

For the plan to proceed, Illinois has to sign on as a non-federal sponsor of the project, and the deadline to do that is sometime within the next 60-90 days. Pritzker asked for an extension on that deadline to further consider the costs of the plan and to work with Michigan as a potential financial partner.

Pritzker, a Democrat, told the Army Corps that Illinois “is on a path to greater (financial) stability” but his administration has to be mindful about expenditures. Illinois recently went longer than two years without a budget as the legislature and governor couldn’t agree on how to deal with the state’s financial problems.

Pritzker’s tentative support for the Army Corps plan is a departure from former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s approach. The Rauner administration rebuffed the region on any plan that included infrastructure modifications that could inhibit the barge shipping industry.

Michigan financial offer

Under the administration of former Gov. Rick Snyder, Michigan had offered $8 million to help Illinois offset annual maintenance and operating costs of the modified lock system. But Snyder and Rauner could not agree on how the money would be used before both left office in January.

“The money is still available for that purpose,” Michigan Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Ed Golder told Great Lakes Now.

But Golder said the funding had “legislative intent” and questioned if it could be used by Illinois or the Army Corps for a different purpose.

“The discussions between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration and the administration of Gov. Pritzker are ongoing and productive,” Golder said.

The Illinois DNR did not respond to a request to comment by deadline.

Breaking the Illinois inertia

 One veteran of the Asian carp wars in Illinois wants to help break the institutional inertia that has existed in the state over the issue.

Cameron Davis was President Obama’s point-person for Great Lakes issues in 2009 when the carp advance hit a tipping point. That was after environmental DNA was discovered past the electrical barriers designed to keep carp out of Lake Michigan.

That revelation alerted the Great Lakes region that it had to do more than rely on electrical barriers.

Davis is now a new commissioner for the Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) and in a recent Tweet said he would be asking the agency to be part of the solution. MWRD is a state agency.

MWRD under former Gov. Rauner had declined to engage on the Asian carp issue even though it had unused federal funds that could have helped offset some of Illinois’ expense of the Brandon Road project.

In October 2018, an MWRD spokesperson told Great Lakes Now that “MWRD does not support the current Brandon Road plan proposed by the (Army) Corps, and it is premature to discuss how that project could be funded and whether the MWRD would have any involvement.”

Davis told Great Lakes Now that with his Tweet he was acting as an individual commissioner.

But he said since the MWRD’s October rebuke of the Brandon Road project, the agency has a different executive director, the composition of the board is different and there’s a new governor.

“Now is a good time for seeing what role MWRD can play in doing its part to protect our waterways,” Davis said.

“It still is premature to discuss how this project could be funded, and we are continuing to monitor its status,” MWRD spokesperson Allison Fore said on Monday responding to a Great Lakes Now inquiry.

“Great signals” on Asian carp

Julie Jacobson says she is now “more optimistic” about Illinois’ engagement on invasive carp and that environmental groups have been getting “great signals” on the issue since Pritzker took office. Jacobson is a senior fellow with the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC).

ELPC wants the Pritzker administration to put approximately $2.5 million in its budget to pay for pre-construction engineering and design work that has to be accomplished for the Brandon Road project to advance.

The Army Corps estimates the project would be completed by 2028, 19 years after the 2009 environmental DNA discovery of Asian carp.

Featured Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District Brandon Road Lock Briefing, Photo by Patrick Bray, U.S.A.C.E. via flickr.com cc 1.0

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For background on how former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder offered funds to Illinois, check this Great Lakes Now interview with Snyder on Asian carp taped last December.

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