Saturday, September 06, 2014

(Photos) The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal: The most hated body of water in America

In Willow Springs, Illinois, just a thirty second walk from the Illinois & Michigan Canal is the watercourse that was built to replace it, the 28 mile-long Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

This man-made river is probably the most reviled body of water in America. Why? Largely because of Asian carp. More on that in a bit.

By the late 19th century, the I&M, which connected the Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River watersheds in 1848 at the Chicago Portage, was too narrow and shallow to handle industrial age shipping. But Chicagoans had another reason to replace the modest canal. City sewage was being dumped into Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, which flowed into the lake, and that of course posed health risks because Lake Michigan, as it is now, is the source of Chicago's drinking water. Engineer Isham Randolph spearheaded the drive to create the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which would send the sewage south into the Des Plaines River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico--while reversing the flow of the Chicago River.

That project is considered one of the greatest civil engineering feats ever.

There's the CSSC. This photograph, as with of the others in this post, was taken last month.

Downstream from Illinois, other states reacted to Chicago's sewage kiss as a homeowner would if a neighbor's septic tank was leaking offal onto their property. They sued. But for the most part the Illinois agency now known as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago got its way. The US Army Corps of Engineers now operates the canal and the outflow of Great Lakes Water is controlled. However, the sewage from Chicago area residents such as myself that ends up in the CSSC isn't treated with chlorine. Fecal coliform is common in the canal--and forget about drinking from Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal--water from it is deemed unsafe for any kind of human contact.

This is not a sanitary canal.

Some fish manage to live in the CSSC, mostly trash species such gizzard shad, common carp, and goldfish. The only sign of fish life I saw during my visit was an inch long spotted gray fish with a rounded mouth sucking air from the surface as if it was an aquarium pet in a dirty fish tank.

Of course all fish die, but the death of these three pictured here might have been hastened by the canal's poor water quality.

The Asian carp, a 1970s escapee from fish farms that has made its way up the Mississippi River system, is for now, being prevented from entering the Great Lakes by two electronic barriers at the southern end of the CSSC near Joliet. The invasive fish has the potential to destroy what remains of the Great Lakes commercial fisheries and it could also devastate tourism in Great Lakes towns that depend on recreational fishing.

Now you know why the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is so despised.

As for the Asian carp, they're huge--they can weigh up to 100 pounds. Like something out of a horror movie, the carp can en masse jump out of the water.

The canal was closed off in 2009 for a few days when one of the electronic barriers was being repaired. A fish poison, rotenone, was poured into the CSSC north of one of those barriers. Among the thousands of dead fish found was a sole Asian carp. Good news? Yes. But carp DNA has been discovered since then in Lake Michigan and a live one was found in a lake on Chicago's South Side.

Which is why many states are demanding that the US Army Corps of Engineers permanently close the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and recreate the continental divide at the Chicago Portage. Such an endeavor of course would be obscenely expensive. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn favors the retro-reversal, but the Chicago Democrat, who is not the best manager of money--the Prairie State has a backlog of $4.4 billion in unpaid bills and is burdened by over $100 billion in unfunded pension debt--wants the federal government to pick up the tab.

One study put a price on closing the CSSC at $4 billion. Knowing bureaucrats as I do, I figure $40 billion would be closer to the mark. To see what I mean, take a look at Boston's Big Dig.

There are pro-canal forces--the CSSC is a major mover of oil, coal, quarried stone, and grain.

But if the canal is shut down, Chicago area residents would have to seriously upgrade their sewage system. It's not like we'll be able to bottle it up and ship it to Louisiana.

One last picture: I love the cut limestone banks of the canal.

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