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The Chicago River Is Broken

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Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogIn recent weeks a couple of high-profile boat rides have been used to highlight giant problems facing this region. The first, a cruise taken by Illinois Senators Durbin and Kirk to see dilapidated water infrastructure that threatens public health throughout Chicagoland. The second, a boat ride for press to roll out new tools in the fight against one of the nation’s most feared invasive species. What do they have in common? They both made their way down the Chicago River. It is time to connect the dots folks. We can fix both issues, but it means fixing the river.

The boat rides capped off a few weeks in which the river got a lot of attention. That included multiple challenges to the ongoing pollution of the Chicago waterway system with human waste and chemicals in violation of the Clean Water Act from both USEPA and local advocates.  We have filed a lawsuit against the agency primarily at fault for this unacceptable situation -- the ironically named Water Reclamation District of Great Chicago (MWRD). The USEPA has joined the criticism last week with an official letter to the State of Illinois, calling on its officials to enforce Clean Water Act standards in the River system. Senators and other elected officials have also joined the public outcry for cleaning up the waterway and restoring it to meet acceptable standards for public health and safety.

But this is not just an icky sewer problem. The second boat ride was a rollout for new tools that would be employed in the Chicago River and its 70-odd miles of canals (the Chicago Area Waterway System, or CAWS) to stem the advance of the Asian carp, which are using the waterway’s connection to the Mississippi River system to threaten the Great Lakes. That’s not news to anyone who has been paying attention -- plenty of species have headed out the opposite way. Zebra and quagga mussels, round gobies and noxious plants have colonized the Great Lakes before advancing to the Mississippi watershed through the CAWS where they continue a campaign of damage to water quality and infrastructure. In fact, the electric fence that is supposed to protect Lake Michigan from the Asian carp menace was originally designed to stop round gobies from moving towards the Mississippi (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

More expansively: these “gee whiz” approaches to whacking big head and silver carp aren’t up to the real fight. High intensity “water guns”, nano poisons. They represent a “seek and destroy” mentality that misses the big problem here: the CAWS is always going to be a threat to funnel critters between the ecosystems. Asian carp aren’t the only ones cruising on it. But there is so much attention to the big, bad jumping fish that those tasked with fighting the onslaught are contorting themselves to battle only Asian carp. That ignores all the other species queued up. And leaves us still oddly exposed to the next invasion -- whether it be smaller animals, plants or viruses. 

For both issues, poo in the water and invasive species, the solutions are pretty clear -- and related. Fixing the waterway can improve water quality, stop chronic basement floods throughout the region and rebuff ALL invasive species trying to muck up two of the most important water resources in this hemisphere. NRDC has already outlined how simple barriers, with off-the-shelf technology, can effectively shut down the invasive species threat permanentlywith a reasonable price tag. Augmenting the overtaxed water system with the green technologies that the City of Chicago is already using, we can cut down or eliminate the massive pollution plume that results from the outdated combined sewer system that plagues this region -- and complicates the carp solutions. And by rejoining the rest of the civilized world by ending the practice of dumping effluent laden with living germs from “human waste” that we can eliminate the rogue’s gallery of waterborne diseases harbored in the river that flows through our glittering Loop.

Looking at each of these separately, it is easy to get caught up in myopic fights. But take a step back. Together, these actions protect billions in fishing and tourism industries for the lake while also cementing value along the riverbanks where so many people now live and recreate. I’d love to say that we can tie this all up in a cheap and easy package with a bow on top. We cannot. The issue of commerce on the river needs to be addressed in a way that puts more goods on the river, not less. We think that is doable and will be a big part of studies to come. And admittedly, these solutions come with a price tag, but the status quo is anything but free -- it costs us more and more each day.

Given the attention that the fights over carp and disinfection have elicited, there are actually resources that will flow into the region to address them. It is a unique spot that requires thoughtful planning. Money coming in to deal with disinfection of water dumped into the river highlight the broader inadequacy of our water system and the need to use innovative tools, such as green infrastructure to help keep stormwater from overwhelming it. And there is growing agreement that the Asian carp issue is not a “Chicago problem,” though it will require a “Chicago solution.” That also means money spent in the river system. We can either spend the cash on underwhelming measures and ineffective gadgets like bubble walls, water guns and electric fences -- or we can look at the big picture and fix two of our most vexing issues at once. Considering these issues in tandem, not apart, will help to ensure that whatever solutions come together will help to fix the river once and for all -- ending the flooded basements and ecological damage that have been a building plague over the last century.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.