Tugboat Troubles and Serious Storms: Reminders that Chicago needs to rethink its waterways

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It’s official. Saturday was the rainiest day in Chicago’s history. And after big storms last night, it has been the rainiest month on record for this town. That’s why a little story in the Chicago Tribune caught my eye this morning. Despite the deluge, it seems that a tug boat nearly sank in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal this morning…  

As we fight over how best to deal with Asian carp and the 40 other dangerous invasive species that the Army Corps of Engineers recently identified as threats that could use the canal and Chicago Waterways to expand their economy-crushing advances between the Mississippi and Great Lakes ecosystems the story is all-too-often reduced to barges vs. fish. Over and over again, we are told that the vaunted Chicago canal system is a marvel of engineering that sits at the center of this region’s economy---too important to be monkeyed with even to protect the billions of dollars generated by the Great Lakes fishing industry each year. And yet, today we see that the highly engineered nature of the waterway can be problematic for its most basic functions. Last night's storms overwhelmed the system forcing combined sewer overflows throughout the waterways. And storms last week actually forced the Chicago River to be re-reversed to flush sewage out into Lake Michigan. Despite all that water, is it possible that the tugboat was an unwitting victim, stuck in flow so artificially low that it scraped otherwise avoidable objects on the canal bottom? (According to press accounts, the tugboat didn't sink because it was sitting in only 12 feet of water.)

Look, I don’t want to make too much of one isolated incident. But really, it is time to rethink the system. Chicago’s storms once again brought massive flooding to communities and basements and result in sewage discharges to the Great Lakes. Our water infrastructure is just not up to the task of dealing with heavy violent rainstorms that are dumping lots of water on this town with increasing frequency. And the movement of goods needs to be accurately included as part of that conversation. The current Chicago area canal system is inadequate for a 21st century economy, and the approach of the Army Corps of Engineers and others is not focused on bringing changes to that reality---that needs to be faced and changed. Currently, the Chicago waterways move  about 1% of goods passing through the Chicago region. We need more barges, not less. The only way to make that happen is to improve infrastructure, invest and better connect the waterways with the broader rail and commercial infrastructure that has proliferated in Chicago. That comes with a massive re-imagining of the system (which also includes our sewers) and, yes, a permanent physical barrier that will end the migration of invasive species once and for all. One thing is clear: doing nothing to fix and improve the waterways is unacceptable.  It condemns the region to sclerosis, decline and marginal, backwater status in the Global Economy. And to soggy, disease-breeding basements, contaminated beaches and a sewer for a River.

We cannot just accept flooded basements. We cannot just accept Asian carp swimming into Lake Michigan. We cannot accept other invasive organisms sloshing their way out of the Lake and into our other inland waterways (like quagga mussels, which now threaten Hoover Dam!). And we cannot accept those economically important barges running aground in the suburbs.

Update (7/29): The Chicago Tribune reports this morning that tour boats and water taxis are unable to operate because water levels on the Chicago River are so high that they have lost clearance under the bridges downtown. Admittedly, the canal and river are very different, but they are part of the same system---weird!


Cermak Bridge Barge Passageway image by puroticorico via Flickr