The Water That The Coast Guard Won’t Save You From

By Kyle Hill | May 16, 2014 11:11 am

Barrier SchematicsAbout 25 miles south of Chicago lies a stretch of water that nothing lives in. It’s not pollution or over-fishing that has wiped out nearly everything save for insects and bacteria here, it’s electricity. At the river bottom there are multiple 160-foot wide grids of electrodes issuing 2.3 volts per inch every 2.5 milliseconds.

The Chicago Electric Dispersal Barrier was implemented to repel fish traveling up the shipping and sanitary canals to the Great Lakes. Specifically, the barrier’s voltage was meant to turn away Asian Carp—a voracious invasive species that most worry would destroy Great Lakes fisheries. And the electricity does its job. It turns away larger fish, and so far the Great Lakes haven’t been overrun.

There is much more to this story: more about the effectiveness of the barrier and the all-out campaign of carnage (think poisoning whole river systems) undertaken to combat the Asian carp (read here and here). Recently, the practice has been questioned, as researchers found Asian carp DNA floating upwards of the barriers. But the fish barrier itself interests me.

When I was an undergrad studying environmental engineering, we spoke at length about the ends we sought and the means we took to destroy the threatening Asian carp. During a lecture, my professor quipped that because of the electrified water, the fish barrier was “the only stretch of water that the Coast Guard won’t save you from.” It sounded like one of those nuggets of wisdom professors like to drop to keep drooping students awake, but he was right.

If you go in the water you’re on your own.

Man Down River

Only a fence separates you from electrified water. And it’s only there because the canal could be considered what contractors and lawyers call an “attractive nuisance.” If the canal (or any other construction project) might be attractive to kids (or foolish adults), the state could be held liable for any injuries that occur in or around it. Hence the fence.

According to safety reports, if you swim at almost any point within the range of the electric barriers that span the channel, you risk either involuntary muscles contractions or ventricular fibrillation. Once you are in range, the barrier’s electric pulses hijack your own nervous system. Your muscles respond to the outside shock the same way they respond to the electrical architecture your body is made up of, only much more violently. Needless to say, if you had to swim and breathe to stay alive, not being able to control your muscles, breathe, or maintain a steady heartbeat would be problematic. As such, the entire area is a no-go zone not just for civilians, but for the Coast Guard as well.

A pamphlet issued by the US Coast Guard lays out this stark warning:

“There is no identified safe method to recover a victim from the water while in the electrified zone. If a person or object falls out of your vessel, the U.S. Coast Guard will not [emphasis mine] attempt a rescue until the person is 450ft down river, due to electric hazard for the rescuers.”

It’s a tough call to make. It seemingly goes against all a rescuer’s training: don’t save them, you can’t save them. And right now the coast guard is focusing on public awareness to make sure that they don’t have to make that call. All personal watercraft are prohibited from ever coming near the electric barrier and the warnings are bulked up with heavy fines and jail time.

Thankfully, there hasn’t been a test of this protocol. A shipping and sanitary canal isn’t exactly a prime swimming spot and no workers have fallen in or overboard.

But we know one thing for sure. Until we find a way to safely extract some poor soul from the canal without risking more lives we will have to let the barrier do its job: turning life away.

  • Uncle Al

    Snakeheads and tilapia can live full and rewarding in dilute human sewage – and mightily reproduce, and are delicious. I weary of unlimited $ocial welfare for the fragile and endangered snail darter and delta smelt. Support winners not losers.

    As for the sanitary canal itself near term, remove all barriers. Think of it as evolution in action.

    • disqus_9S2FrqwZ1D

      Evolution in action? The reason they’re coming is because we reversed the river and don’t want to let it run in it’s natural direction. That water wants to go to the ocean.

      • Uncle Al

        Remove all people barriers, leave the juice on. The fish are evolved. The people are increasingly devolved by Obamunism: “You did not earn your evolutionary fitness, government gave it to you.”

        Any government that can give you everything can take it all away.

        • David P. Turnbole

          Spoken like a true Teathugligoon.

  • joebob3919

    This is easily mitigated by emergency off buttons at/near water level and on both shores and by having large, taught rope net at an angle to the current that one could climb onto and out of the water before the electrified portion. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a non-problem.

    • carlos

      If just one pair of Asian carp or other invasive species swims through during that down time it was all for naught. Your solution isn’t viable.

      • Jayme Joseph Theis

        Right….because the life saved by a human in such an emergency at the cost of asian carp getting into the great lakes, as invasive as they are, is certainly for naught

  • JJ

    I occassionally navigate in this channel. This article “baits” but doesn’t fully clarify. First, the DNA that has been found upstream has most likely been transported via birds that feed on carcasses; no asian carp have been caught or found upstream of the barrier. The barrier has been been in place for many years and is considered to be a success. Secondly, the waters downstream of the barrier are pretty much devoid of any fish altogether down to Lockport Dam. Third, it has been determined that the length of the rivers upstream of barrier are not long enough to support the spawning cycle of this type of fish and that Lake Michigan is not hospitable enough for this type of fish both by low temperature and lack of available food source thanks to the zebra mussels. Fourth, the signage there is pretty good and if you fall off of a vessel in transit through the barrier, the crew can throw a life ring with a polypropelene line to pull you out. All manner of boats transit through the barrier but only one at a time. Last, two coal burning plants have been closed along the stretch of river in Chicago in 2012 which essentially allows the river to freeze over bank to bank during the winter which again is not conducive for this fish. There is a collective group of people who want to close off the Great Lakes to the Illinois River/Mississippi which would hurt shipping and industries involved in raw materials. Follow the money trail to find those who would profit from the closure….


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About Kyle Hill

Kyle Hill is a science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. His work has appeared in Wired, The Boston Globe, Scientific American, Popular Science, Slate, and more. He is a TV correspondent for Al Jazeera America's science and technology show TechKnow and a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Find his stream of nerdery on Twitter: @Sci_Phile Email him at sciencebasedlife [at] gmail [dot] com.


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