Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Here is part one of the report by Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that deals with Chicago's reversal of the flow of the Chicago River, and its role in the possible introduction of an invasive species of fish, the Asian carp into the Great Lakes.

Chicago reversed the flow of the River over 100 years ago if you remember, to avoid dumping its sewage into Lake Michigan, the source of its drinking water. As horrible as the thought of dumping sewage anywhere is, one has to remember that, well as a guy who owned a porn shop explaining his place in society once said to me; "shit is shit, and it has to go somewhere."

So for 110 years the recipients of our effluence have been the communities along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, and ultimately the beleaguered Gulf of Mexico itself. And how you may ask did these communities react to Chicago's action to send its crap their way? Well it's a great story, one that is recounted in the MJS article. Essentially the state of Missouri sought a Supreme Court injunction to stop the opening of the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal. But before the court had a chance to review the case, in the middle of the night of January 17th, 1900, crews were dispatched from Chicago 30 miles downstream to open the canal, instantly making the matter a moot point. It's the Chicago way after all.

It is this same waterway that conservationists fear will be the conduit for a very unwelcome fish to enter Lake Michigan and ultimately the entire Great Lakes ecosystem. The Asian carp was originally introduced into the Mississippi River in the 1970s by catfish farmers to remove algae and particulate matter from their ponds. Periodic flooding made the ponds overflow thus introducing the fish into the Mississippi River. These fish are big, weighing up to 100 pounds, have a rapacious appetite, and are extremely prolific. If they manage to find a way into the Great Lakes, they most certainly will wreak havoc with the ecology of the world's largest supply of fresh water.

Clearly something has to be done and it is looking more and more like the answer is blocking off the Sanitary Canal from Lake Michigan. This would have a deleterious impact on the economy, directly effecting the shipping (predominantly barge) industry which relies on the waterway to move heavy materials from the lake to the river. Clearly the biggest impact however would be the fact that our waste will be released into Lake Michigan, once again, the source of our drinking water.

This scenario may not be as dire as it sounds. Sewage, which is already treated in Chicago before it's released into the water in a process briefly described here, would then be chemically disinfected to remove harmful bacteria that would otherwise contaminate the water supply. This disinfection process is done in virtually every major city in the country already except Chicago. The MJS article goes to great pains to excoriate the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the governmental body in charge of disposing of the area's waste, for resisting measures that have been standard procedure elsewhere in the country. In this article from the Chicago Tribune, the Reclamation District did its own study which found that chemically treating water not surprisingly has its own ecological drawbacks. To be fair it must be stated that most environmental groups claim that this study is mostly stonewalling on the part of the District.

The MJS article is misleading in implying that Chicago simply dumps its untreated waste directly into the waterways. It states that Chicago's canals contain "bacteria at levels that can be more than 1,000 times higher than what is discharged at Milwaukee's Jones Island sewage treatment plant." This may be true but what the article fails to point out is that Chicago's canals were built specifically for the purpose of transporting diluted, treated water while Milwaukee returns its treated water directly into Lake Michigan, the source of its drinking water. What Egan describes as Chicago's "crude sewer system", was actually, along with Brooklyn's, the first comprehensive combined sewer system constructed in the United States. Chicago's system in fact was an engineering marvel given the city's flat topography. In the 19th Century while Chicago was transporting its diluted sewage away from its water supply, Milwaukee was dumping raw sewage directly into Lake Michigan and to some extent, continues to do so today.

The tone of this one sided MJS article is clearly biased against Chicago, which is their prerogative. But the fact is that if Milwaukee and other cities had the opportunity and wherewithal to address their sanitation issues as Chicago did at the turn of the last century, they most certainly would have done exactly as we did. I find it just a little disingenuous that journalists and the public at large up in the great state of Wisconsin, given the less than stellar record of dealing with their own sewage, feel compelled to bash Chicago in what is turning out to be a supremely complicated problem. Perhaps a little case of the pot calling the kettle black no? But what do I know, I'm just another "fucking Illinois bastard".

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