5.2.13

REVERSE THE FLOW

A Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article from a year ago suggests that restoring the flow of the Chicago River into Lake Michigan offers more benefits than costs.
Such a project would have dramatic and expensive consequences for the way Chicago manages its waste and storm water. It would require significant sewage system upgrades because the city would once again send at least some of its effluent into Lake Michigan instead of down the canal system into the Mississippi. It also would affect barges that ply the canal, and the industries that rely on the materials they haul.

But it also would go a long way to protecting the Great Lakes, the world's largest freshwater system and a drinking water source for more than 30 million people, the study says.

The study reports that the cost for separation ranges between $3.2 billion and $9.5 billion and is targeted for completion between 2022 and 2029, depending on where the barriers would be built and to what extent waste-water treatment and navigation systems would be upgraded.

It cites no specific funding sources but suggests local, regional and federal financing to bankroll the work.

That is a load of cash, but the stakes of doing nothing could be equally high. Many biologists fret that just the Asian carp, which have already infested the Mississippi River basin and could colonize the lakes via the Chicago canal system, could wreak havoc on the Great Lakes sport and commercial fishing industry, which has an estimated annual value of $7 billion.
The paper followed up last month.
Biologists predict the number of unwanted organisms moving on the Chicago canal will only grow until the waterway is somehow plugged. And it is much more than a Great Lakes problem because biological pollution travels both directions on this invasive species superhighway.

Not only do rapacious Asian carp threaten to unleash havoc on the lakes' multibillion-dollar fishery, but some troublemakers such as pipe-clogging zebra and quagga mussels already have ridden canal waters in the opposite direction - out of the Great Lakes and into the Mississippi basin. From there they have hitched rides on recreational boats towed over the Rocky Mountains and now plague irrigation and hydroelectric systems across the West.

The cost of these unwanted organisms is hard to comprehend, but it is growing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service predicts that if the fingernail-sized zebra and quagga mussels get into the Northwest's Columbia River hydroelectric dam system, they could do more than a quarter-billion dollars in damage. Per year.

Other noxious invaders are poised to make the same trip. A fish-killing virus now menacing the Great Lakes could do incalculable damage were it to slip down the canal and into the South's aquaculture industry.

In this sense, the Chicago canal system isn't so much a waterway as it is an open wound.

"This is not about Asian carp," said Peter Annin, a Great Lakes author who is managing director of the University of Notre Dame's Environmental Change Initiative. "This is about two artificially connected watersheds that many people argue never should have been connected."

Fixing the problem would be a massive public works project that would likely cost at least $4 billion and take years to accomplish. But beyond stopping invasive species, it could lead to dramatic improvements in water quality and flood control, as well as fuel a navigation boom on Chicago's increasingly neglected canal network.
I'm not sure what sort of navigation boom the report contemplates, although there are some promising riverside neighborhood properties along the various canals and the interior rivers draining into the Illinois River. It's interesting, though, to put tax dollars to work undoing the effects of previous tax dollars put to work, unproductively.
The canal project was considered an environmental success in an era before the lakes were open to global shipping, when nobody pondered the biological costs of bridging the two massive basins. But now the threat posed by dozens of unwanted crustaceans, protozoa, algae, plants, mollusks and fish spilling through the breached divide has become clear as a zebra mussel-infested lake.

Today the canal is recognized by many as one of twin blunders that destroyed the ecological isolation of the Great Lakes. The other was construction of a shipping channel between the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean.

The St. Lawrence Seaway, which was completed in 1959, tamed obstacles such as Niagara Falls and the roaring St. Lawrence River with a system of canals, channels and locks to allow deep-draft ocean vessels - and all the biological pollution clinging to their hulls and lurking in their ballast tanks - to sail into the lakes from ports around the globe.

The Great Lakes are now home to 186 non-native species, some of which have ravaged native fish populations, spawned noxious algae growth and triggered botulism outbreaks that have killed tens of thousand of birds. Federal regulators this year ordered a multiyear phase-in of ballast water treatment systems on Great Lakes-bound freighters to block new seaway invasions, though many are dubious the regulations are stiff enough to solve the problem.

This would be mostly just a Great Lakes dilemma were it not for the back door from the lakes that Chicagoans opened to the middle of the continent.

Pressed by the Asian carp threat to examine the extent of ecological danger posed by the canal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year identified dozens of "high risk" organisms poised to ride its waters into or out of the Great Lakes. Most are species few have ever heard of. The tubificid worm. The testate amoeba. The bloody red shrimp.
The Seaway has been a commercial failure, although the upper Lakes are a convenient way to move bulk commodities to elevators and mills. The interior river system is also useful for bulk commodities, although there's ample rail capacity in case the Illinois River canal is reversed.

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