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Un-reversing the Chicago River

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Un-reversing the Chicago River

David Ullrich is co-leading a study of how to un-reverse the Chicago river in order to stop the spread of invasive species.

Front, Center/Gabe Spitzer

Back in the 19th century, Chicago had a problem: Its river went the wrong way, washing sewage into its drinking water supply in Lake Michigan, spreading diseases like cholera and dysentery. The solution sounded crazy: turn the river around. But that’s just what Chicago did, and it’s been patting itself on the back for it ever since.


Historical images
of Chicago


Now the menace isn’t waterborne disease, but invasive species. Unwelcome critters, plants and microbes are the price of connecting two great waterways that had always been separate, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

The new threat has civic leaders considering a fix that seems almost as audacious as reversing the river: un-reversing the river. That solution is a ways off, but it’s starting to seem a lot less far-fetched, thanks in part to a key moment in the Great Lakes’ 10,000-year long natural history. The moment came in June of 2010, just down the Calumet River from Lake Michigan.

“We actually saw the discovery of a live Asian Carp here right in Lake Calumet, here in Chicago,” says Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Carp DNA
had already been turning up in the Chicago waterways for a while, but this was a live fish. A three-foot long, 20-pound, speckled, bug-eyed fish. It’s not clear how it got there, on the wrong side of an electric barrier meant to contain it. It may have crossed the barrier when it was tiny, or it may have been released there by someone.
In any case, it inflamed fears that the invaders are continuing their march up the Mississippi, through these man-made connections, into the Great Lakes.

“We should expect to find live carp showing up above the barrier from time to time,” says Brammeier. “And it’s going to get worse as time goes one. We’ve got to be moving toward separating these two systems because these technology barriers simply aren’t a long-term solution.”

Ever since engineers reversed the Chicago waterways, the link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi has been a double-edged sword. It’s been crucial to Chicago’s growth, but it’s also generated complaints about waste, pollution and invasive species. Now that the stakes are so high, and now that the problem is coming to Chicago instead of originating here, radical solutions are on the table.

“Long-time U. S. senators are standing up asking the [Army Corps of Engineers] to study separation,” says Brammeier. “Governors, mayors, legitimate people who think about the economy and jobs every day want to know how to separate the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. We’re past the point of determining whether this is a crazy idea or not.”

The push to take that idea seriously came, in part, on the business end of a lawsuit. Other Great Lakes states sued to force Chicago to shut down the lakefront locks. That suit has stalled in court, but the idea of un-reversing the river, a more permanent solution, has picked up steam.

Former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley called it a “great project.” The Army Corps of Engineers is studying it, though too slowly, for some people’s tastes.

“We do not have the luxury of time in dealing with the Asian Carp, and the potential damage they could cause in the Great Lakes is astronomical,” says David Ullrich, a career Environmental Protection Agency official and head of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. He’s co-leading another, fast-tracked study of basin separation, on behalf of Great Lakes cities and states.

Most of the proposals they’re considering would have the effect of un-reversing the Chicago River, basically by damming it somewhere and blocking the water’s escape route to the Mississippi system.

But that would cut a connection that lots of people use for important things. Depending on where you put barriers, Ullrich says you could wind up with a dead-end for barges and tourboats, toilet waste in the lake, or flooding in downtown Chicago.

“What we’re trying to do is find those locations that create the least problems for all of those,” Ullrich says.

One of those locations being considered is back down by Lake Calumet, right where that carp turned up last summer. There’s a dividing line there between the deepwater channels plied by the lake freighters, and the shallow canals, used by wide-bottomed barges. Joel Brammeier says it would make sense to build a barrier right here.

“This is how far barges can go, this is how far freighters can go, and they meet over a barrier, and we do intermodal shipping just like the rest of the world,” he said. But then he adds quickly, “now I don’t want to understate the complexity of what I just said. We don’t walk into a room, snap our fingers and all the sudden separation occurs.”

This project would likely be complex, expensive and controversial. Plenty of people question whether it’s even possible.

“If it’s an Army Corps of Engineers project, I won’t live to see it,” says Senator Dick Durbin (D--Ill). “It takes them years if not decades to tackle something of this magnitude. And the cost is likely to be overwhelming.”

Durbin helped push the federal government to study of separation, and advocates of it hope he will be a champion. But Durbin, speaking in between bruising budget talks in Washington where colossal budget cuts were on the table, is tepid about spending billions on new, unproven projects.

“If I could point to two or three examples around the world that have worked and are affordable, it would be a lot easier to say this may be the answer,” he says. “At this point, I’m not sure.”

The cost of un-reversing the river is still unknown, but it would go well beyond just engineering and construction. For one thing, cutting off a hundred-year-old shipping lane would have serious consequences for industry. Nowhere is that clearer than around the industrial corridor that hugs the Sanitary and Ship Canal through Lockport, Romeoville and Lemont.

Lockport alderman Pete Colarelli mounts a bridge over the canal, right where the Army Corps of Engineers has its electric barrier, and commands a view of the throbbing refinery and small mountain range of jet-black coal piles. Barges and freight trains ply the corridor with ore and salt, fueling the factories and taking their product to market.

“I believe it was Judy Biggert, U.S. Congresswoman, who said if the canal were closed, it would bring immediate Depression-like environment to the area,” says Colarelli. “I think that’s accurate. If the canal is closed, there are a number, if not all of the businesses here would close down.”

Few of the serious proposals being considered would completely shut down this canal, and there are ways to get stuff over or around barriers. Still, business groups say those methods would send costs through the roof, forcing many to close or move.

But for all that, the more intractable problem might be the water itself. Severing the connection to the Mississippi could leave storm water with no escape route, risking major floods in downtown Chicago and elsewhere. New infrastructure to slurp up that water could make a giant project even bigger. And even though Chicago’s sewage district has agreed in principle to start disinfecting its effluent, there’s a lot more work to do before that wastewater could be directed into Lake Michigan.

David Ullrich, the co-leader of the states’ and cities’ study, struggled to think of another public works project on this scale. “Comparing it with other projects, I don’t know. The pyramids?”

So could the pyramids have gotten built in these times? For that matter, could the Chicago River have been reversed in the first place? Down on the Chicago River’s South Branch, just outside his office building, Ullrich says this is another chance for Chicago to redefine its relationship with water. And he’s pretty sure he’ll live to see this water flow the other direction.

“Chicago makes no small plans. And I’m confident that this is another big plan that can be a reality,” Ullrich says.

Subduing this river is such a part of Chicago’s identity --even the city’s flag memorializes it. It’s still hard to picture a Chicago where the runs the other way. But within the next year Ullrich’s study may, for the first time, begin to fill out what that Chicago might look like.

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