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Daley Mulls a Big Back to the Future Move for the Chicago River

By JoshMogerman in News on Sep 11, 2010 9:12PM

Chicago Riverwalk photo by Multisanti.
Just because the Mayor is on his way out, does not mean he is out of big ideas for the City. He let loose a doozy with the Trib yesterday. The Clout Street blog reports that Daley is interested in re-reversing the flow of the Chicago River back into Lake Michigan:

“I said boy that’s a great project,” Daley told the Tribune, recalling a conversation he had last week with his brother while at a beach along Lake Michigan. “Instead of diverting all that water, maybe we should reverse it (to flow into the lake).”

“I said that’s a great project, we have to start thinking about it now, and of course go to the business community and set up a committee and work with Water Reclamation District and others and Army Corps of Engineers,” Daley added.” That could be the salvation maybe of the Great Lakes.”

The idea will sound crazy to some, but Daley is not the first to float the concept. Ever since the river was reversed a century ago, there have been concerns about the water removed from the Great Lakes and potential for spread of invasive species---in fact neighboring states tried to prevent the reversal in the courts but could not get a ruling before the engineers had already dug the canals that reversed the flow. As a result, Illinois operates under very different rules about water withdrawals from Lake Michigan than the other Great Lakes States, something that still rankles our neighbors.

Those issues have gained traction in recent fights over Asian carp and Wisconsin drinking water systems in recent months (and the question of reversal even popped up in the Illinois Senate campaign battle for a hot second). Re-establishing natural flow of the river would allow for physical barriers to be put in place that would return the separation of the Great Lakes basin and Mississippi River system, essentially eliminating the movement of invasive species between the two ecosystems. And, it would add water back into the Great Lakes instead of pulling billions of gallons out of the system every day, helping to deal with growing issues of water scarcity. Seems like a win-win to us!

But while we like where the Mayor’s head is at, we have to question his assertion that the change would not force a solution to the ongoing battle over decontamination of the River. As we have covered many times, the water in the Chicago River is made up largely of effluent dumped from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s water treatment plants---and that water can only be described as nasty. The District does not currently decontaminate it, despite the presence of…ahem…human waste bacteria---though an ongoing lawsuit may force a change to the practice. The Trib recently called for MWRD to quit dragging their heels and start cleaning the water they dump just like almost every other city in America. If this project were to move forward, we should do it all the way!