River Reversal: Chicago's Special Anniversary

02/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Debra Shore Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

It's been said that all problems started out as solutions (I'm paraphrasing journalist Eric Sevareid here).

On January 17, 1900, in the culmination of a grand engineering scheme to protect the drinking water supply for residents of Chicago, the last barrier separating the Des Plaines River from Lake Michigan was removed, thus reversing the flow of the Chicago River. The fledgling Chicago Sanitary District, founded in 1889, had spent nearly 20 years constructing the Sanitary and Ship Canal to connect the Chicago River with the Des Plaines. This grand act -- reversing the river -- preserved the integrity of Chicago's drinking water supply by sending sewage downstream instead of into the lake, and it protected the city's residents from diseases caused by poor sanitation.

Eventually, the Sanitary District (now called the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago) would build treatment plants throughout Cook County, including the world's largest, at Stickney, so that sewage is treated before it is discharged into the Chicago area waterways.

But the solution to the problem of Chicago's contaminated drinking water supply has itself caused other problems. First, we created a conduit between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River that did not exist before. The Sanitary and Ship Canal cut across the eastern continental divide, a natural high point left by the retreat of the last glacier that separates the drainage of the Atlantic Ocean from that of the Gulf of Mexico. The Des Plaines River, the Fox River, the Kankakee River and their tributaries lie in the Illinois and Mississippi watershed. The Chicago River and the Calumet flowed into the Great Lakes. Because our canal connected these two watersheds where nature did not, today we are spending millions constructing an electric barrier to try to keep invasive species, such as Asian carp, from making their way up the Illinois River and into the Great Lakes.

Second, we broke the natural hydrologic cycle. Now we pump more than a billion gallons of water a day out of Lake Michigan for residential and industrial use in Cook County alone and we return almost none of it. We use it once and then we essentially throw it away, discharging our treated wastewater downstream where it eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico (and the nitrogen and phosphorus from both our own waste and from lawn and farm fertilizer contributes to the Dead Zone there where algal blooms choke out aquatic life). This withdrawal, known as the "Chicago diversion" is now enshrined in a Supreme Court decree and the recently-signed Great Lakes Compact, and it means that Chicago and the other Illinois communities that have access to Lake Michigan water will be able to grow and thrive for years to come.

But our access to Great Lakes water places a special obligation on us to be careful stewards of this precious resource and to use it wisely. The Great Lakes collectively hold nearly 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. Remember, unlike oil and other fossil fuels, there is no substitute for fresh water, that substance on which all life utterly depends. We will have to learn to live like misers in a land of apparent plenty - that is our challenge.

The sanitary engineers and civic leaders of the past solved a major problem and thus allowed Chicago to become a booming metropolis. We owe them thanks. But for Chicago and our region to have a robust economy - and a healthy ecology - for the 21st century, we will be asked to embrace a new paradigm, that of stewardship. We can no longer be merely users or abusers of our natural resources; we must act as caring kin, making amends for prior acts through restoration and acknowledging that we have a responsibility not only to our fellow human beings but also to the rest of nature (much of which is as dependent on an adequate supply of water for survival as we are). We can do this, I know we can. We can treat and manage water as a precious liquid asset.

What can you do?

1. Conduct a personal water audit to assess your use and see if you can cut down. Americans use more water per capita (about one hundred gallons a day!) than anyone else in the world.

2. If you are replacing a toilet, purchase a dual-flush model that uses less water.

3. Install a rain barrel (Cook County residents can purchase one for $40 from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to capture rain water for use on your lawn or plants. This reduces flow into the storm sewers and recharges underground water supplies.

4. Swear off bottled water. (30 million plastic bottles a day end up in landfill and they require a lot of energy to manufacture.) Carry a refillable stainless steel or other canteen and use our great tap water.

5. Liberate part of your lawn and plant native plants that are adapted to our rainfall regime, don't require watering or mowing, and provide habitat for butterflies, birds and beneficial insects.

6. Capture water from your shower as you wait for it to warm up in a bucket. Use it to water plants or flush toilets.