Dec 26, 2012

Will the Chicago River Change Course and Flow Back Into the Great Lakes?

Henry Henderson: ...water levels are visible almost everywhere you look in the normally water-rich upper Midwest right now. The Mississippi River is so low that it needs emergency blasting to clear rocks impeding barge travel. And the Great Lakes are approaching an all-time low, which could write a new chapter in the ever-fascinating history of the Chicago River.

As you probably know, Chicago's city fathers pulled out one of the most celebrated engineering feats in modern history by reversing the river away from the Great Lakes to stave off all manner of waterborne illnesses that were infecting our drinking water; this is the so-called "Chicago Diversion." The reversal effort could be undone in the coming months as drought conditions may lower Lake Michigan well below the height of the river, causing the waterway to flow back into the Lake as it originally did, rather than into the Mississippi River watershed as it was engineered to do a century ago. 

As the Great Lakes are expected to reach historic lows this winter, gravity becomes a problem. Water flows down hill and the Army Corps of Engineers worry that an additional drop of six inches will be enough to undo the hydrology of the Chicago Diversion. That half-foot would make the lake lower than the river, which would flip the flow with the waterway reverting back to its natural course back into the Great Lakes. 

Unfortunately, we have not really fixed the problems that necessitated the reversal to begin with: sewage and filth dumped into the river (plus the more recent issue of the waterways acting as invasive species superhighways). The river remains rife with human bacteria from undisinfected human waste released by water treatment plants. The regional water authority has finally agreed to install the equipment to disinfect sewage that comes into their plants, but the disinfection will happen far too late should the river spontaneously head into the lake this winter. And this equipment will not address the problem of uncontrolled sewer over flows that happen whenever there is more than an inch and a half of rain in the region -- thus, uncontrolled sewage flow will continue under present realities. 

The Army Corps of Engineers is so worried that they announced last week that drastic measures are going to be necessary if Lake Michigan drops six more inches -- something that is within the realm of possibility if the drought that grips the region continues. 

So, what is to be done to protect our water... again? 

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