Fish in troubled waters

Great Lakes governors aren’t happy with the pace of the federal government on a $9 million electric fish barrier designed to keep the Asian carp from becoming the latest species to invade the lakes. Given that the fish, which can grow to 100 pounds, is within 45 miles of Lake Michigan, and could eventually move into Lakes Erie and Ontario and New York waters, their frustration is understandable.

The feds need to pick it up, or at least offer a timeline and work plan for when the barrier will be switched on, as Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle asked them to do in a recent letter on behalf of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, whose membership includes New York Gov. David A. Paterson.

The barrier has been built in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, an artificial link between the Mississippi River basin and Lake Michigan, but it hasn’t been turned on because of safety issues. The barrier is designed to shoot considerably more electricity into the canal than a smaller barrier now in place. There are concerns over whether the electrified water could send sparks between barges, some of which carry flammable materials, and what would happen if a person fell overboard in the barrier zone.

The Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are right to take such concerns seriously and to work with all stakeholders to make sure the issues are resolved. But we do wonder why such concerns weren’t thoroughly vetted before taxpayers spent $9 million on the project and why the concerns can’t be resolved more quickly.

The carp - brought from Asia to Arkansas more than 30 years ago - has overwhelmed stretches of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers since escaping from government containment ponds. It is a leaping, filter-feeding fish that biologists say could destroy what’s left of the Great Lakes’ ecological integrity and multibillion-dollar fishing and tourist industries.

The governors would like the issues resolved quickly and the barrier "to begin operation at full capacity as soon as possible," Doyle’s letter said. That’s a reasonable request given the money that’s been spent and the urgency of the threat. Replacing the barrier with something else, as the barge operators would like, is not.

There isn’t enough time.