Chicago River Runs Backwards: A Climate Change Reminder for Senator Kirk

06/16/2015 04:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogA series of storms swept through Chicago on Monday, with violent monsoons hitting hard during the evening rush hour. By 6:40 p.m., the Chicago River had had enough. It was filled to the brim as the region's dilapidated combined sewer system funneled much of the rainy onslaught into its banks. As billions of gallons of stormwater flooded into the river, it rose.

And rose.

Until gravity took over.

As has been the case more and more frequently in recent years, the river couldn't handle the influx. Water levels in the River swelled and the locks that separate the waterways from Lake Michigan were opened to relieve the pressure. As a result, the Chicago River flowed into the Great Lakes bringing millions of gallons of tainted water to Lake Michigan via the Chicago Lock right next to Navy Pier and another spot in suburban Wilmette. In the loop, gorgeous new Riverwalk sections that opened in recent weeks were christened by sewage.

Blame climate change. Violent storms like the ones we saw last night dump an incredible volume of rain in very short periods of time. A half-inch dropped on Midway airport in less than five minutes yesterday (an inch of rain hit Aurora, IL in a half hour at the height of the storm). Even with massive additions to the region's stormwater system, it cannot keep up. The 109 miles of Deep Tunnel under Chicagoland was filled last night and the rain kept coming.

And that is going to continue.

Climate scientists have predicted this phenomenon for decades; so as galling and shocking as the reversal of a river sounds, it shouldn't be a surprise. It is happening on an annual basis at this point. There is hope though. The Obama administration has advanced the most important climate action in history in the form of the Clean Power Plan, which would slash dangerous carbon pollution from our nation's power plants -- the largest source of carbon emissions in America.

Unfortunately, there are many standing in the way of meaningful climate action.

NRDC sent a letter to Senator Mark Kirk today urging him to vote in support of climate action as some in Congress push to delay the Clean Power Plan. We highlighted the impacts of climate change on the health of people in this state, on the Great Lakes and on national security...

... but in retrospect, we probably could have just pointed to the river flowing backwards through downtown Chicago.

The Chicago River re-reversals make clear climate change is already having serious impacts. There is much to be done to make the systems we rely on more resilient in the face of the climate turbo-charged rainy onslaught (I've blogged before about the need to invest in green infrastructure and rethink the river). But the folks in Washington have a key responsibility to take action now to prevent the worst impacts of climate change before it is too late.

Senator Kirk need only look lakeside in the North Shore suburbs or at the Loop to see that he needs to support climate solutions and resist pressure from climate deniers in Congress. And Senator Kirk can look to the South Side of Chicago, where flooded basements are a real economic environmental and health threat bringing "climate maggots" and disease tainted river water which cannot be ignored.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.