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Why Officials Should Consider Re-Reversing the Chicago River

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Why Officials Should Consider Re-Reversing the Chicago River
Jack Higgins

Mayor Daley sounded awfully defensive about the federal government’s demand that he turn the Chicago River into an ol’ swimming hole. But really, we should be talking about more than disinfecting that filthy channel: We should be talking about turning it into a real river again.

For years, environmentalists have been saying its time to reverse the reversal of the Chicago River.

“I have not seen anyone definitely evaluate whether the reversal remains necessary,” a former director of Friends of the Chicago River once said. “A hundred years ago it made complete sense. Today freshwater is in short supply. We are using good, clean Lake Michigan water to flush the water and dilute pollution. My sense is there are better uses for the water -- like drinking.”

At one time the river was unhurried and uncertain on its trip to Lake Michigan. Until around 10,000 B.C., it flowed on its own out of the lake. But as the glaciers receded, the land decompressed, and by the time Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet found the river's headwaters, the river flowed eight feet above lake level.

But the river was rerouted in 1900 because a million or so people who lived along its banks were filling the torpid channel with waste. This flowing toilet fouled Lake Michigan, the city’s water supply.

Engineers dredged the riverbed, tilting it away from the lake, then dug a long trench -- the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal -- linking the Chicago River with the Des Plaines River. Like a mule returned to its old owner, the river placidly returned to its original course, flowing once again toward the Gulf of Mexico. The city still flushes its sewage down the Sanitary Canal and on into the Mississippi.

Reversing the river allowed Chicago to become a great metropolis -- at the time, 6.7 million people couldn’t drink from a lake in which they urinated. But environmentalists say such a project would never be approved today, and they argue that modern sewage treatment makes it unnecessary.

And there are better uses for the Chicago River, too -- like swimming.

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