Report: Revitalizing Chicago’s Waterways Could Enrich Communities and Rebuff Invasive Species

Barges vs. Fish Narrative is bogus; Investment needed to address both issues

CHICAGO (September 23, 2015) –  A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) highlights the need for investment in the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) to revitalize its economic value, enrich communities and rebuff the advance of invasive species like Asian carp. A commitment to re-envision the CAWS could transform it into a more commercially and environmentally sound resource for the region.

“Chicago faces a stark choice for its inland water system: allow it to decline into an ever more marginal backwater and source of pollution or seize the moment to revitalize the city’s water economy and communities,” said Meleah Geertsma, attorney in NRDC’s Midwest Program and report author. “Bold action to clean up and protect the waterways can bring more livable communities and clean industries to the area, while protecting the region and nation from invasive aquatic species that threaten our treasured Great Lakes water resources. It is clear that the carp vs. barges narrative is bogus—both need real fixes if we are going to move forward.”

Revitalizing the Chicago Area Waterway System: Key to a Healthy, Vital, Sustainable Greater Chicago” offers a snapshot of the challenges and opportunities facing the waterway system. It includes findings by the leading transportation firm Cambridge Systematics that describe a long downward trend in commercial shipping on the CAWS to a small fraction of Greater Chicago’s total freight activity; deteriorated shipping infrastructure; and land use plans for areas along the waterways that envision vibrant communities anchored by sustainable businesses. In addition, NRDC presents an overview of pollution enforcement actions taken against businesses associated with the waterways by the U.S. EPA, Illinois EPA, Illinois Attorney General, and City of Chicago.

The movement of coal and petroleum coke, or petcoke, on the waterways is likely to experience significant decreases in the near future, creating an opportunity for re-envisioning the CAWS. The two low-value bulk commodities have represented a large portion of the material moving along the waterways—as well as public frustration with pollution in the form of coke and coal dust blowing into communities. Both products may largely disappear from the CAWS due to aggressive action by the City of Chicago to address the negative impacts of facilities handling petcoke and coal, along with shifts away from coal in the energy economies of the Great Lakes states. In addition, a NRDC analysis found that while significant strides have been made in cleaning up businesses operating along the rivers, a number of today’s facilities along the Calumet corridor have been cited with violations of numerous health, safety and environmental laws.

Asian carp illustrate a very different reason for updating the waterways: invasive species. When the Chicago River system was reversed over a century ago, it created a direct, artificial connection between the Mississippi River System and Great Lakes. Invasive species have moved both ways through the CAWS to wreak havoc on two of the world’s biggest freshwater ecosystems. The carp represent the latest, and most visible, invader threatening to conquer Lake Michigan and the rest of the Lakes via Chicago’s river and canal system that would require physical changes to rebuff.

Connecting these two issues, NRDC recommends a serious look at integrating waterway shipping into the region’s truck and rail systems to create a practical vision of the waterway that is in sync with the broader community's legitimate need for a healthy, vibrant future. This freight analysis and planning must be accompanied by a commitment to clean up polluting businesses benefiting from low cost shipping, which burden communities along the waterway system.




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