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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast with Haze
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The carp are coming!
It's time to mobilize the nation against this homeland threat
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Credit:USFAWS, Chris Olds

If you haven't yet seen the YouTube videos of Asian carp flinging themselves out of the water, head-butting anglers and hurling their hideous, slimy selves at passing motorboats, you really ought to check them out.

These monster fish (they can grow up to seven feet long and weigh 150 pounds) are heading our way. It's like a low-budget horror movie, except it's for real.

Here in Madison, we already know what more pedestrian breeds of invasive carp can do. Anyone who has walked near the shores of Lake Mendota during breeding season has seen the crazy, thrashing fish orgy that turns the lake brown with churned-up mud. As a kid, I remember tossing vending-machine snacks off the Edgewater pier and watching the swarm of ugly suckers rise to the surface to chow down. Yuck.

But that's nothing compared to the Asian carp.

These fish not only leap out of the water to bloody the faces and break the bones of fishermen in passing boats, they have suddenly begun breeding twice a season, proliferating so fast they completely take over any waterway they reach.

The mother of all invasive species, Asian carp are threatening to take over the Great Lakes, sucking up native food, devastating sports and commercial fisheries, and turning one-fifth of the globe's freshwater supply into a thrashing, slimy carp-pit unfit for native fish and plant species - not to mention swimming, boating and other forms of human enjoyment.

Last week, researchers discovered fragments of Asian carp DNA in Lake Michigan - the first time the fish (or at least fragments of it) have breached the divide between the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes.

In a plot twist worthy of a serial-killer-escapes-the-psych-ward thriller, the carp DNA discovery came on the same day that the Supreme Court turned down an emergency request by the state of Michigan to temporarily close the locks that connect the city of Chicago waterways to the Great Lakes.

Oops.

Under the Great Lakes Compact, all the Great Lakes states, including Illinois, have agreed, on paper, to take prompt action to quell threats to our precious water resource. But in practice, the state of Illinois, the Supreme Court and the Obama administration are dragging their feet.

Michigan's request to close the locks against these monster fish is supported by Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, New York and the Canadian province of Ontario. If the locks are closed, however, Chicago faces the threat of flooding, and members of Congress from the district are issuing dire warnings about job losses and a negative impact on industry.

There is, without question, an engineering problem to solve. But it is far from unsolvable. The locks could be closed temporarily, and the infrastructure updated to protect against flooding.

Further foot-dragging by Illinois and the federal government could prove disastrous. Says Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "We might be forced to wait 10 years for the Army Corps of Engineers to finish a study on permanent solutions to this mess."

Meanwhile, the jumping, breeding, voracious carp press onward. It is now clear that the existing electric fence is not enough to keep them back.

This doesn't have to be a jobs-versus-the-environment standoff. For one thing, several large industries - including sports fishing, commercial fishing and tourism - depend on the Great Lakes. And what better time could there be for a massive public works program in the economically devastated Upper Midwest?

Reengineering the barriers that used to separate the Great Lakes from the Mississippi would not only create jobs; it would represent a major mobilization against an identifiable enemy. Terrorists in far-off lands have nothing on these fish!

The Obama administration has the opportunity right now to commit federal funds to a major infrastructure project, build jobs and save the environment.

Thanks to the Great Lakes Compact, Midwestern states including our own have already pushed the administration to make a historic commitment of federal funds to protect our national freshwater supply. It's a great start. But now is the time for the Obama administration to be really bold.

I can already see the poster - Uncle Sam facing off against a huge Asian carp, with the tag line "I want YOU to fight the monster fish!"

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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