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Re-Reversing the Chicago River Is Only the Start

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Re-Reversing the Chicago River Is Only the Start
Re-Reversing the Chicago River Is Only the Start

AP

The downtown Chicago Lock at the foot of the Chicago river through which river traffic passes into Lake Michigan, is seen empty, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009 in Chicago. A toxic chemical is to be dumped Wednesday on a nearly 6-mile stretch of the Chicago and Sanitary Ship Canal as part of state and federal efforts to keep the voracious and invasive Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes. Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Stacey Solano said. Environmental groups say they support Wednesday's efforts to use rotenone on the carp and maintain the electrical barrier. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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Alexi Giannoulias is the first politician to suggest allowing the Chicago River to flow into Lake Michigan, but the debate over the river’s course has been going on for years.

In 2002, I wrote an article for the Chicago Reader about Chicago’s thirst for Lake Michigan water. Laurene von Klan, who was then executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, wanted to start a discussion about which was the river should run.

Reversing the river allowed Chicago to become a great city -- 6.7 million people can't drink from a lake in which they urinate. But it would never be approved today, von Klan argued, and modern sewage treatment has made it unnecessary.

“I have not seen anyone definitely evaluate whether the reversal remains necessary,” she 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.”

On the other side was Dan Injerd, who oversaw Lake Michigan water use for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Injerd believed it was still vital to public health that the water entered our mouths came from Lake Michigan, while the water that exited at the other end flowed into the Mississippi. Otherwise, we’d be at risk of tainting our drinking supply and enduring beach closings for e. coli and other bacteria. Mark Kirk made the same argument at this week’s Metropolitan Planning Council forum.

The city’s wastewater is treated, Injerd said, “but it’s still effluent.”

Undoing the reversal would also affect barge traffic on the state’s rivers. Illinois sucks 2.1 billion gallons a day out of Lake Michigan: enough water to raise the levels of the Calumet and Illinois rivers.

I’m glad Giannoulias started the debate on the Chicago River, but I don’t think it goes far enough. We need to talk about closing the Great Lakes to outside traffic altogether. Ever since the Erie Canal connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie in 1825, every attempt to link the Great Lakes to North America’s other great waterways has been an ecological disaster. The Erie Canal turned into a highway for the Asian clam and the round goby. Oceangoing ships sailing up the St. Lawrence Seaway bring in an average of one new invasive species a year. And, of course, the Cal-Sag Channel has become a highway for the odious Asian carp. We can now use highways and railroads to transport goods that once could only travel by water.

But that’s an argument for a future political race. Let’s start by reversing the reversal.

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