Re-Envisioning the Chicago River: Carp and courts update our thinking

For most of my life, the Chicago River has been treated as an open sewer. With rare exceptions, public officials have seemed content to accept that the River is fated to be one of the dirtiest waterways in America. Given its reputation, cemented in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the public itself has seemed willing to live with a degraded river and expect little improvement over time---hey, at least it’s not brimming over with pig parts from the old Stockyards, right?

But this complacent reality is changing.

Last week, I found myself before the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) talking about the practical means and grand opportunity to re-envisioning the Chicago River as a clean and functioning river, worthy of the City of Chicago and its citizens, rather than a sluggish conduit for sewage. 

Certainly, there were some dubious responses and uncomfortable shifting in the seats from the District officials, but the fact that the conversation was occurring at all within the walls of the MWRD marks how far our community has moved forward toward an understanding that it is time to clean up the Chicago River. You see, the MWRD is the special unit of government on Northeastern Illinois that collects and discharges sewage into the Chicago River and its canals that connect the River to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The MWRD tends to be untroubled by the high bacteria levels in the effluent they dump into the Chicago waterways. And, they tend to be quite defensive about the status quo. So, it is significant to have MWRD officials engage on re-envisioning the waterway, and discuss the practicalities making the waterway worthy of a vibrant modern city and integrate it into the protection of the Great Lakes, rather simply a drain on those irreplaceable fresh water seas. 

It is a big step. And builds upon the growing public discussion over the past year about how the Chicago waterway can properly fit into the 21st Century. The growing public discourse includes the attention to the waterway in the race for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois where both major candidates agreed that the waterway should be cleaned up and decontaminated; Chicago Mayor Richard Daley advocating for clean up and restoration of the River so that it flows back into Lake Michigan, rather than drains fresh water to dilute pollution; and the Chicago Tribune forcefully editorializing for a river cleanup.

More importantly, this isn’t just talk. We could be on the verge of significant action in the River. And, what do we have to thank for that, besides decades of hard work from lots of folks? Carp and Courts.

The Asian carp issue brought me to the District meeting last week. They were holding a “study session” to look at how the fish’s advance through the Chicago waterway into Lake Michigan might be stopped by restoring the separation of the Chicago River from the Mississippi River system. This was, afterall, the way of things until the District broke the separation 100 years ago. To this point, the MWRD has been strongly and publicly averse to the idea of re-separation. I applaud them for looking closer at the issue, and I very much appreciated the opportunity to share some thoughts about the opportunity that it presents to our region, and to the MWRD as an important governmental agency in the region.

I’ve blogged on the issue of separation a fair amount, and one of my frustrations has been an inability to answer the question of, “what would that look like?” That is a legitimate query, but since little public work had been done on it, there was not much to point to in response. That is why my group worked with the engineers at Shaw Environmental to put together an initial engineering analysis to figure out if barriers could be put in place without triggering the nightmare scenarios often trotted out in this debate by the District and Chamber of Commerce. Our evaluation, undertaken with review help from City, State, and federal stakeholders who know the system well, says that the threat of a flooded Loop is unjustified. Read the report, we can do this thing with off-the-shelf technology, though there’s plenty of engineering work to be done to really spec everything out. 

One of the areas we focus on in our analysis is better dealing with heavy rainstorms, which overwhelm the river and current water system---a huge concern that must be addressed if barriers are going to be put in place. Right now, when there is a big storm, locks are opened and the water is flushed out into Lake Michigan (the river is literally re-reversed). This happened in July, and our beaches were closed for days afterwards due to the pollution that flowed out of the river. And, of course, basements around the region were flooded. Our analysis showed that we start to get flooding around here with rains as small as 0.67 inches. And if you get up to 1.5 inches, basements are guaranteed to get soggy all over the place. The system just can’t handle big inputs anymore and as the Chicago Climate Action Plan points to more frequent violent storms, the problem will just get worse. That’s why we point to green infrastructure as a supplementary solution---using natural features like plantings and permeable pavement to hold the water, rather than flush it into the sewers and river. This technique is being used with great success in places like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and just west in Aurora, IL.

And that is where the Courts come in. That polluted water in basements and the Lake after big storms? Lots of it comes from the District’s water treatment plants, which is not decontaminated when dumped into the river (meaning it has human…ummm…bacteria in it which can make you sick from direct contact). We just saw what should be the last hearing in the longest running case in the Illinois Pollution Board’s history, which might force the District to clean up their act and decontaminate their effluent like almost every other community in America. The City is pushing for decontamination. The State is pushing for decontamination. The feds are pushing for decontamination. The NGO community is pushing for decontamination. And if the courts join the chorus, we might have a cleaner River fast. 

Clean enough to re-reverse back into the Lake? Slow your roll. Not yet, and I don’t expect it to reach that level for some time. But the fact that we are asking the question is a lot more than I expected a year ago!

The re-envisioning of the River as a clean waterway (rather than a sewer and a highway for invasive species) is an opportunity for genuine leadership. It is not just about keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. Rather, it is the opportunity to practically re-establish a healthy relationship with the river that runs through the heart of a great City, and defines our relationship with the largest body of fresh water in this Hemisphere—the Great Lakes. It is the opportunity to rebuild the troubling water system that still plagues us with flooded basements and dangerously polluted water.

While we cannot address all these issues at once with one simple bold action, we can organize deliberate and effective action to realize the clear, bold goal of protecting our water through improving the Chicago waterway system. The carp are not exclusively Chicago’s problem. They are a national problem that must bring resources to the region to protect 1/5 of the world’s fresh water and a multi-billion dollar fishing industry. The resources necessary to protect those assets can certainly do double duty if we are thoughtful in our response.

And one thing is clear in the public discussion ---we are thinking more about the Chicago River and how it fits into the healthy future of our region than ever before.  That is good news. Action will be even better.