When an Army Corps of Engineers general teamed with a Rhodes Scholar to fish for Asian carp DNA in the Chicago River, both hoped it might help win the battle to protect the Great Lakes from yet another invader. Instead, they ended up in a federal court fight over how much weight you can put in a mere molecule.
The first hint that the river was dying came when the fish started to float to the surface, their white bellies aglow in the lifting dawn light. One by one they popped into view, the way stars emerge at dusk. Some could only flap their gills as they drifted on the tea-colored current. Others thrashed. All of them - ultimately a constellation of thousands - would be carcasses by the time the winter sun slipped below the horizon.
The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal looked like a crime scene on this gray morning of Dec. 3, 2009. Yellow police tape laced the banks. Roads to the water's edge were blocked by local police officers shivering in the cold, unable to explain to passers-by exactly what had happened. Behind the barricades, a generator thrummed outside a huge command tent with computer work stations and coffee for the 400 federal, state and Canadian fishery workers who had descended on the canal from across the Great Lakes region.
Just outside the tent, the bosses of the operation had corralled a cluster of news reporters at the water's edge to tell their story. They were the ones who were killing the river, they explained. They had decided to poison it because they were at war - with a fish.