MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Finally this hour, we're going to examine a controversial fish from a legal and a gastronomic perspective. The Asian carp is voracious, and here in the U.S., it's an invasive species. Michigan and six other states are worried the fish could infest the Great Lakes through shipping locks in the Chicago area. The states are asking the Supreme Court to close the locks and reopen an 88-year-old lawsuit over Chicago's diversion of water.

NPR's David Schaper laws out the legal side of the story.

DAVID SCHAPER: Before we get to the fish, a little history. Over a century ago, the city of Chicago dug miles of canals and reversed the flow of the Chicago River. It was a remarkable engineering feat for its time and it allowed the city send its sewage and industrial pollution away from its drinking water source in Lake Michigan. The manmade waterways also established a vital shipping connection between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, but other Great Lakes states cried foul and sued in 1922 over concerns of reduced lake water levels.

Decades later, the Supreme Court ruled Chicago could continue to flush Lake Michigan water out of the Great Lakes watershed, but the high court left open the possibility that the states could reopen the case if they could show that the Chicago water diversion is causing harm.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox says that harm now almost here in the form of Asian carp.

Mr. MIKE COX (Attorney General, Michigan): They devour plankton, algae and other material on such a large volume that they have the potential of destroying every Great Lakes fishery, whether it's Lake Michigan, Superior, Erie, Ontario or Huron.

SCHAPER: Just before Christmas, Cox filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to force Illinois, the Army Corp of Engineers and Chicago's Water Reclamation District to at least temporarily close the locks between Illinois' waterways and Lake Michigan.

Cox and others worry that if the Asian carp get through those locks, they will crowd out native species of fish in the Great Lakes, causing an ecological and economic disaster.

Mr. COX: Fishing and tourism is a $7 billion industry along the eight lakes - excuse me, the eight states and the two provinces that make up the Great Lakes. And clearly, hundreds of thousands of Michigan jobs are dependent upon fishing and tourism and all that's related to the fact that we are the Great Lakes state.

SCHAPER: But if the Chicago locks are closed, there are many people who make their living here on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, whose livelihoods could be affected. I'm standing on the Mary C. It's a tow boat pushing barges up the canal toward Chicago. Bill Russell is with the company that owns the Mary C, Illinois Marine Towing.

Mr. BILL RUSSELL (Illinois Marine Towing): 16.9 million tons of cargo moves up and down this waterway system into Chicago.

SCHAPER: That cargo is moving 24 hours a day all year round, even on these bitterly cold and blustery days. Russell points to the hulking industries lining the canals that are fed by the barges.

Mr. RUSSELL: We're right at the edge of the Citgo Petroleum refinery, one of the users of the waterway. They bring a lot of things in and out of here by barge that they can't move by pipeline. We have salt piles here along the facilities that supply salt to all the cities around Chicago, as well as the city itself. All that salt comes up the river by barge.

SCHAPER: Road salt, petrochemicals, coal, steel, sand, grains and more all move through the Chicago locks. Shipping those materials over land would add more than a million trucks and tens of thousands of rail cars, increasing pollution and congestion. And closing the locks would cost hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, including the 125 at Russell's company.

Mr. RUSSELL: Without this river system being open and without the locks, our company would cease to exist because we wouldn't have anything to move if these barges couldn't travel in and out of Chicago.

SCHAPER: The state of Illinois and the Obama administration cite these and other economic health and flooding concerns in their briefs opposing the Michigan petition to close the locks, but Illinois and federal officials say they do agree with Michigan and the other states that the Asian carp threat is real and imminent.

Scientists say Asian carp DNA has been detected just seven miles from an entryway to Lake Michigan. Officials say they'll discuss all options for keeping the invasive species out of the Great Lakes in a meeting in Chicago next Tuesday. The Supreme Court could take up Michigan's request for a preliminary injunction to shut the locks as soon as next Friday.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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