The Environmental Impacts on the Reversal of the Chicago River
Author: Zijun Li
Program of Study: Master of Public Policy (MPP)
View of Chicago River at Wolf Point on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017. | Sun-Times staff photo
In the 19th century, Chicago had to reverse the direction of Chicago River to protect the water quality of Lake Michigan. The reversal was recognized as a marvel of human engineering at that years. However, the reversal has caused some negative effects during these years.
(transcript was provided by student and is unedited)
“Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2021. I’m your host, Zijun Li, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Today we will be exploring the topic of the environmental impacts on the reversal of the Chicago river.
The first time that I saw the Chicago River was during the virtual tour in AEPP. I was impressed by the view of the Chicago River very much. At that time, I took it for granted that the Chicago River must be flowing into Lake Michigan, as they’re geographically connected. But, as I explored Chicago, I surprisingly found that the course of the river was not the case as I thought. As I researched information about the river, I learned from the article “the Chicago river tour with Geoffrey bear” that the truth is that before the late 19th century, the Chicago River flowed from west to east toward Lake Michigan. But today, the Chicago River flows from east to west, and eventually flows into the Mississippi river in the south. I was shocked that a river can be reversed. I am very curious about how and why the reversal was made.
According to historian Donald Miller, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. But as the city grew, Lake Michigan got more and more polluted. Wastewaters of the city flowed along with the Chicago river into Lake Michigan. Since Lake Michigan provided the city clean drinking water, many Chicagoans suffered from typhoid, cholera, and other waterborne illnesses. Many people thought about the solutions. Engineer Sylvester Chesbrough was the one who put forward a bold suggestion. He suggested Chicago reverse the direction of its river away from the lake and toward the Mississippi River. After several years, a great ditch was built. The new canal sent Chicago’s wastewater down the Mississippi River to the Gulf. Josh Mogerman, the national media director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that as a result of the reversal, Lake Michigan was free from pollution, and thousands of people were prevented from dying from many waterborne illnesses. The Chicago River Reversal has been celebrated as not only an inspired solution to a vexing problem, but an engineering marvel.
However, the reversal was hardly a perfect solution. In the years and decades that ensued, many negative environmental effects have been made.
The first negative effect was floods. Richard Cahan wrote in the article The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River And The Land Beyond, that the influx of water from Lake Michigan nearly doubled the size of the Illinois River. The water caused frequent floods to farmland downstream. The second concern is about invasive species. The Chicago River reversal connected two of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystems – the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The connection opened new pathway for invasive species. One of the famous invasive species is Asian carp. Asian carp ate other plants and fish up Mississippi River. Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, stated that the fish not only undermine the ecology of the river, but also caused huge economic damage by undermining the native fishery. The third environmental impact is still about pollution. Although Lake Michigan was protected, many communities downstream have argued that the pollution is shifting to them. Some people said that the reversal has caused pollution in areas as far as the Gulf of Mexico.
Currently, as Chicago’s underground sewage treatment system improves, the environmental impact of the reversal downstream is diminishing. But we still need to pay attention to the water pollution.
Well, the problem of water pollution is not only a Chicago issue. Many cities are currently suffering from the pollution. As reported in the International Initiative on Water Quality by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, one in nine people worldwide use drinking water from unimproved and unsafe sources. The worse information is that 2 million tons of sewage and other effluents are still draining into the world’s water every day.
So how can we solve the pollution problem? Actually, water pollution issue need help from everyone. Governments need to regulate sewage rules and improve groundwater systems. Enterprises need to comply with the regulations and make “green” production. Individuals also need to do what they can to reduce plastic consumption and garbage into recycle.
Conclusion + Music
In my opinion, nature is an organic whole. When humans violate some of the laws of nature, there will be a lot of risks. If we want to achieve a more sustainable development, we need to have more respect for nature. So, what are we waiting for? Start action now. Protect the water and protect ourselves.
Finally, if you want to visit the Chicago River, take a bus from the campus for about 40 minutes or just bike ride there for about 50 minutes. Hopefully, you can enjoy the view of the river.
Thanks for listening to my podcast today. I am your host, Zijun. See you.
Teal for real: City, MWRD probing cause of two-toned Chicago River
The Chicago River Tour with Geoffrey bear: How Chicago Reversed Its River: An Animated History
Carson Vaughan(2019). Floods, Carp, And Crap: The Environmental Impacts Of The Chicago River Reversal
 UNESCO(2012) .International Initiative on Water Quality (IIWQ)
Melissa Denchak(2018). Water Pollution: Everything You Need to Know