Closing Chicago river locks could cost billions

The Chicago area economy would lose $4.7 billion over 20 years if two river locks were closed for fear of Asian Carp spreading to Lake Michigan, according to a report commissioned by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

The study, conducted by DePaul University economist Joseph Schwieterman, was released Wednesday in response to separate findings from February that concluded the shipping industry would only suffer losses of around $70 million annually. That study, conducted by John Taylor of Wayne State University and James Roach of J.L. Roach Inc., a transportation-consulting firm, did not take into account revenue lost from recreational activities and tourism.

An effort spearheaded by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox has sought to close the Chicago and Timothy O’Brien locks, on the Chicago River and Calumet River, respectively, in order to protect the Great Lakes from the invasive species. Michigan has focused on closing the locks because of Asian Carp DNA that was found near the locks and in the adjacent waterways.

Cox filed a lawsuit against Illinois and the Army Corps of Engineers to seek a temporary injunction to close the locks — a request that was ultimately denied by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Schwieterman’s report estimated that permanent closure of the locks would incur a $582 million financial loss the first year and $531 million in the subsequent seven years. The financial losses include added transportation costs, extra funds allotted to regional flood-abatement systems and the loss of consumer river tours and recreational boating, the report said.

Surrounding communities rely heavily on the locks to get rid of excess stormwater when a vast underground tunnel system isn’t able to handle any more water, Schweiterman said. It would cost $2.5 billion alone to expand the tunnel system if the locks are permanently sealed, he said.

“We tried to look at the full spectrum of costs,” Schwieterman said. “The consequences are far greater than complications to the barging industry. We have a thriving water system used by many and we showed that the costs are a very complex issue.”

The Wayne State report has been criticized by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce as being conducted in an unscientific manner and inexactly in respect to costs.

Taylor has defended his report, saying information was gathered in a thorough manner and the focus was only on transportation costs.

“Our report is well-sourced and well-documented,” Taylor said. “The transportation and handling costs are in the same ballpark as the others. (The DePaul study) had more because they looked at many other factors.”

Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, said closing the locks, either permanently or intermittently, is not a good idea.

“As friends of the river, we look to preserve and protect the river,” Frisbie said. “Closing the locks permanently would be devastating to tours and recreational boating. Closing intermittently would be just as bad, since it would call for poisoning portions of the river and establishing ‘kill zones’ to control the fish, which is obviously something we can’t endorse.”

However, Michigan Attorney General spokesman John Sellek told the Associated Press last week that Michigan still wants the locks closed. Cox has introduced a petition calling on President Obama and Congress to close the locks immediately.