The Obama administration's promise Tuesday to quicken its search for a way to shield the Great Lakes from Asian carp and other invasive species is more a baby step than a giant leap toward a solution that could be in the works for years or even decades.
Under intense pressure to accelerate the process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said by the end of next year it would release a short list of methods for preventing organisms from migrating between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds. Congress and the public could decide which they prefer.
Previously, the corps had insisted it would need until late 2015 to recommend a permanent fix _ a timetable challenged by five states in a federal lawsuit and legislation proposed in Congress. Critics say faster action is needed as the huge, aggressive carp that have infested the Mississippi and many of its tributaries bear down on the lakes, where they would gobble up food needed by native species and disrupt ailing ecosystems.
"We're pretty excited we're going to be able to move things along a little more quickly than we anticipated," said Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.
The corps will offer a menu of choices it considers feasible and likely to gain wide support, Darcy said.
She and John Goss, Asian carp program director for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, didn't guarantee that the revised timetable would put a final solution in place sooner. But they said it would enable Congress, which would have to choose and pay for a plan, to begin evaluating options.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Rep. Dave Camp, both of Michigan, praised the announcement but said much remains to be done. They're sponsoring legislation to set an 18-month study deadline. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to require completion by July 2014.
Environmental activists and many elected officials say the only certain solution is physically separating the two giant drainage basins by placing dams or other structures at key points in Chicago-area waterways that form a direct link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi. That method is sought in a federal lawsuit filed by Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. .
The promised acceleration is "a mild positive step but not a game changer," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office.
Thom Cmar, an attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, dismissed the announcement as "a total non-event."
"Spending the next year-and-a-half ruling out options that the corps should have ruled out from the very beginning does not strike me as progress," he said.
Darcy said basin separation is among options under consideration, but the corps has a congressional mandate to consider other possibilities.
If the corps recommends separation, it's uncertain whether Congress would agree. Chicago business interests are strongly opposed, saying it would disrupt cargo shipping and cause flooding. The project would require lots of time and money _ a report in January estimated costs ranging between $3.2 billion and $9.5 billion and cited a possible completion date of 2029.
The Obama administration has spent more than $150 million on a short-term strategy that includes tracking and removing Asian carp in the Chicago waterways and reinforcing an electric barrier meant to halt fish migration.
Critics say the barrier is inadequate because carp DNA has been detected beyond it, although federal officials say it's performing well. The barrier lost power for 13 minutes last week for unknown reasons.
Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, said the Army corps' decision to accelerate the study is welcome, "but what we need is a solution."