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New River For The New Year? Chicago River Could Re-Reverse Itself Into Lake Michigan

By JoshMogerman in News on Dec 30, 2012 5:00PM

Dawn at the Chicago Locks [Jim Watkins]

The lack of snow at Christmas is just the latest visible manifestation of a long drought that continues to grip the Midwest. It can be seen in other places, like the Mississippi River, where barges are once again on the verge of being halted from using Big Muddy due to exceedingly low water levels along Illinois’ eastern border. But that is nothing compared to what we might see in 2013. We could get a new Chicago River in the New Year---or actually, a return of the old one.

Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that if the drought continues to lower Lake Michigan’s water levels, it could mess up the hydrological jiu jitsu put in place a century ago when we reversed the Chicago River. A drop of six inches in the Lake would put its water level lower than the river’s. Since water flows downhill, this would trigger a re-reversal of the river making the waterway revert to its natural course flowing into, not out of, the Lake. We still dump LOTS of undisinfected human waste into the river, so the Corps would be forced to close the locks that separate the Lake and River to limit the flow of nasty stuff back into the source of our drinking water. Ain’t hydrology a bitch?

While the half-foot dip below current near-record low Lake levels required to put this mind-blowing scenario into action is a ways off, it is within current Army Corps projections. Oddly, there has not been much attention given to the doomsday warning. It’s a shame, because the possibility of plunging this city back into the very bad old days of rampant waterborne illnesses and filth flowing into the Lake is just the latest (albeit, the most spectacularly creepy) in a series of high-profile stories which make clear that the region has to rethink the river.