Chicago’s Waterways: Despite a bold but troubled past, a bright future beckons

More than a century ago, Chicago undertook a massive engineering feat that came to represent the city’s moxie: the reversal of the Chicago River. At the time, regular bouts of waterborne illness put the city’s rapid growth and future as a thriving, world class metropolis in doubt. The plan to send sewage away from drinking water intakes in Lake Michigan, all the way down the Mighty Mississippi, was an engineering marvel that still looks audacious today.

But with that audacity came problems—some that we have only begun to understand in recent decades. As Chicago considers its place in the world, the river once again seems problematic. It is hard to maintain a world-class city with a troubled river running through Chicago’s neighborhoods and through its gorgeous, glittering downtown. The city’s future and, intertwined with it, the future of the region hinges on fixing the unintended consequences of the reversal.

Workers moving rock during construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal on September 14, 1898.Credit: MWRD
Workers moving rock during construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal on September 14, 1898.Credit: MWRD
People gathering on the ice in a newly completed portion of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in the late 1890s. Credit: MWRD
People gathering on the ice in a newly completed portion of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in the late 1890s. Credit: MWRD

“Today we don’t see people getting sick and dying because of unhealthy drinking water,” said Alliance for the Great Lakes president and CEO Joel Brammeier. “But dig a little deeper and we do have crumbling infrastructure in our waterways, we still rely on dumping sewage in our rivers, waterborne transportation is broken, flood control is broken, we have invasive species.” These challenges could be addressed in a piecemeal way, parceled out over time, addressing urgent crises as they arise. Or, Chicago could seize the opportunity to once again re-think its river and build a future as one of the world’s premier sustainable cities.

Credit: Alliance for the Great Lakes
Credit: Alliance for the Great Lakes

It is appropriate to invoke that guiding light of Chicago planning and development, Daniel Burnham. He beseeched people to “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Nobody would call the solutions to the problems on the Chicago Area Waterways System (CAWS) little…but they are doable. Following are some of the key issues that must be addressed in the waterways to reclaim Chicago’s moxie.

Sewage and Green Infrastructure

Increased use of the waterways means water quality is paramount. In some portions of the CAWS, up to 70 percent of the water flowing through it is actually treated wastewater discharged from treatment plants on the north and south sides.

A warning not to drink the water in the Chicago River, especially if it's raining. Credit: Eric Rogers
A warning not to drink the water in the Chicago River, especially if it’s raining. Credit: Eric Rogers,

Chicago has long been one of few major metropolitan areas that did not fully disinfect its wastewater after treatment, meaning pathogens could still live in the water. By 2016, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is scheduled to begin disinfecting wastewater to remove human pathogens. But the nutrients dumped into the waterway—phosphorous and others—fuel algae growth fouling waterways all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. And infrastructure has not kept up with the city’s growth or the increasing impacts of climate change, leading to sewer overflows so serious that they are actually re-reversing the river forcing it to flow into Lake Michigan with increasing frequency.

Invasive species

While reversing the Chicago River and connecting it to the Mississippi allowed goods to move between the water bodies, it also created a path for aquatic invasive species. About 250 invasive species exist in the Mississippi River basin or the Great Lakes, many of them having moved from one to the other through the CAWS. Thirteen species are considered at high risk of moving from one basin to the other and causing harm in the future. Species that could move from the Great Lakes into the Mississippi River Basin include the bloody red shrimp, fishhook water flea and the VHS virus, often described as “fish Ebola.”

Photo courtesy Alliance for the Great Lakes, 2009
Photo courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service

But the most notorious threat—the dreaded Asian carp—threaten to move in the opposite direction to colonize the Great Lakes through the same pathways in the CAWS. An electric barrier intended to keep the carp at bay has not prevented the invasive fishes’ DNA from being detected just one block from Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago, a stone’s throw from Navy Pier. Time is running out to keep the carp and other invasives from moving between North America’s two most precious fresh water ecosystems, yet significant pushback to the only surefire tool to stop the movement of invasive species—a physical barrier—remains a stumbling block.

Land use

There is hardly parity in how various segments of the waterways are used. The cafes and parks on the Chicago River’s north branch could not be more different from the industrial use (and ruins) along the Calumet River. Perhaps the very public battle over massive piles of oil refining waste along the Calumet in recent years reflects just how far Chicago is from making its waterways amenities for all. While the Calumet stands as a “working river” the entire system is a work in progress with significant changes afoot in how its banks can and should be used.

Land use adjacent to South Branch. Credit: Eric Rogers
Land use adjacent to South Branch. Credit: Eric Rogers

For example in 2012, the two coal-fired power plants that had long operated in dense residential neighborhoods closed. Since then residents, city officials, environmental advocates and companies have worked together on a task force to plan for beneficial reuse of the coal plant sites located along the CAWS in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. Other brownfields and parcels of vacant land along the CAWS also hold potential for public access, green space, clean jobs or other benefits.

Making it happen

Public education and engagement, civic leadership, political will and technical expertise are all needed to drive changes in the CAWS. The area is rich in these resources, with an active citizenry, top scientists and engineers, thriving non-governmental organizations and elected officials committed to sustainability.

A crucial piece of the puzzle is funding. Overhauling infrastructure is expensive, at a time that city, county, state and federal budgets are all extremely tight.

Federal and state grants and low-interest loans plus city and county expenditures and public-private partnerships are currently driving improvements. Obtaining continued and increased sources of funding, and using that funding wisely are key challenges for stakeholders to address together. Private investment also has an important role to play.

Funds put toward CAWS improvements will have multiple positive ripple effects. In addition to the environmental and social impacts, infrastructure improvements create a large number of construction jobs and significant permanent new jobs. For example the MWRD’s two new disinfection treatment plants are estimated to directly create 300 new permanent jobs and about 2,000 construction jobs.

And many positive changes can be made without additional expenditures, simply by better leveraging and advertising assets that already exist.

As the air continues to warm, flowers bloom and green grass returns this spring, the waterways will also come to life with paddlers and sailboats, plus runners and picnickers along the shore. This is a reminder of how far the waterways have come, and how much potential remains to be tapped.

Joggers enjoying an autumn morning along the North Branch of the Chicago River near Montgomery Ward Park. Credit: MWRD/Dan Wendt
Joggers enjoying an autumn morning along the North Branch of the Chicago River near Montgomery Ward Park. Credit: MWRD/Dan Wendt

“The initial reversal of the Chicago River dramatically boosted the performance of the city for generations to come,” reflects Brammeier. “Why can’t we do that again? Turn inward, look at the river, at the connection to the lakes, and make it the focal point for revitalizing the economy. Make it part of the reason people want to live here, and stay here.”

A Note About This Series: Over the coming months, the Healthy Water Solutions coalition will be publishing a series of articles, focusing depth on the problems facing the Chicago Area Waterways System. To receive future articles, sign up for our email list here.

Great Rivers Chicago Wants You

What would you like to see on or along the Chicago River? How about the Calumet River and the Des Plaines River? City and civic leaders would like to know, and to put those ideas into action. That’s the goal of Great Rivers Chicago, a project launched recently by the Metropolitan Planning Council, the city of Chicago and other partners. Participate in the Great Rivers Chicago online survey, at, and offer your ideas and suggestions for improving the 100 miles of river and riverfront in the Chicagoland area.

Posted April 22, 2015