The Chicago River is a Pipeline

Table of Contents

    We tend to discover the presence of pipelines only when they fail.  Recent examples abound, like the TransCanada Keystone pipeline leak in rural South Dakota in 2017, the Exxon pipe burst in Mayflower, Arkansas 2013, and the 2010 rupture of Enbridge Line 6b that poured about one million gallons of tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Extractive production of  petrol products like crude oil and natural gas saturate our lives with nearly 1 million tons of oil per year seeping into our waters. 

    Illinois waterways. (Image/© David Wilson)

    Chemicals, microplastics, nutrient overload and waste pollute American waters. These impacts reflect a global trend of dumping up to 80% of the earth’s wastewater in lakes, rivers and oceans. Alarming levels of contaminants, including lead and arsenic, have been detected in the taps of residents in every U.S. state. 

    The line in pipeline cues its purpose of efficiently carrying fluid from one region to another along the straightest possible route.  The dictionary defines a pipeline as a “continuous line of joined pipes, especially one used for conveying oil, gas, etc., long distances.” 

    Why do we call a river, a waterbody known for turns and bends, a pipeline?

    We think of rivers coursing in a natural path, but pipelines direct flows according to human will. The Chicago River was harnessed, straightened into a canal and pressed into the service of conveying coal, oil and petroleum coke.  It was even reversed in order to carry unwanted water away from the city through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.  Although it is not covered like a pipe, the river functions like a pipeline.  Oil and gas pipelines become known for their breaches and their damages.  The river also overflows with sewage on a fairly regular basis.  In this way, the river resembles the main trunk of a pipeline system with smaller inflow pipes.  These smaller pipes drain effluent into the Chicago River during a rainstorm.

    The Chicago River does not act alone.  When we consider how canals fit the definition of pipelines, Illinois waterways appear as a vast pipeline network. Each river is conjoined one to another in an engineered connection between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.  This liquid pipeline network carries the waste of metropolitan Chicago southward as it cuts the path for barges to transfer petrochemical products and other commodities among regions.

    On a map, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC) extends in a uniform 28 mile-long manufactured waste stream that flows into the Des Plaines River. One can steal glances of the canal from I-55, yet for all its clarity on digital maps, viewing the canal with the naked eye is challenging. Moving west from Chicago, development and industrialization obstruct the canal as townships ripple out from the Chicago city limit.

    Chicago River South Branch looking under the Loomis Avenue bridge towards decommissioned Fisk generating plant. (Photo/© Matthew Kaplan Photography)

    The canal may flow with freshwater drawn from Lake Michigan, but it looks quite different than a river. The Army Corps of Engineers directs  currents through a series of locks.  It is a controlled waterway, murky but smooth, as close as water can come to being paved.  It’s no coincidence that the canal is often referred to as a “highway.” But the term highway can be misleading. Interstates are available to the public; as they ribbon and cut through the landscape of the U.S., our vehicles access highways easily. The CSSC and those linked to it, on the other hand, are  withdrawn from public view. Like most pipelines, it functions in a geographic shroud, ensconced by private development.

    Lock at Romeoville. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    When people observe the canal, it is bound up in two conflicting narratives. In one, it is an engineering marvel, praised for its use in reversing the Chicago River and connecting Illinois waterways to the Mississippi. In the other, the canal is the pathway for unwelcome species, known as “bio-invaders,” poised to enter  the Great Lakes. 

    When we view this waterway as a pipeline, we can see how the forged connection between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico allows for circulation.  It was engineered at the beginning of the 20th Century to send northern industrial waste southward and to allow commodities to flow.  As the commodities flowed in multiple directions, their movement benefited a small cadre of capitalists.  This continues to be the case.  

    When commodities and waste are moved across the globe, life moves with them.  In this way, species have been introduced into North American rivers and the Great Lakes.  They circulate with the products and the people drawn to sites of opportunity.

    Bighead carp at the Shedd Aquarium. (Photo/Rachel Havrelock)

    As we look at the Chicago River as a pipeline, we ask who benefits from its circulations and who bears the brunt of its bursts, leaks and ruptures? 

    The petroleum products carried  through the engineered waterway fuel our world as they accelerate the warming of the climate with its superstorms and floods.  The heaviest burden falls on neighborhoods seeking environmental justice, which are largely low-income and disproportionately communities of color.  Such communities confront daily damage to their health, safety and quality of life.
    A funding structure that directs public funds to the private corporations that profit from the damage seems locked into the elaborate engineering scheme.  These companies would prefer that we not appraise this system.  Better to keep marvelling at a river that flows backward and  to fortify ourselves against two species of carp.

    If it works like a pipeline, then why do we still call it the Chicago River?  

    The Chicago was originally a river that meandered through an active wetland on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Industry, government agencies, and the Army Corps of Engineers reversed the river to meet their needs.  Roughly in the same place and filled with water drained from Lake Michigan, it held the name Chicago River.  

    Not everyone uses the name.  Other Great Lake states refer to it as the Chicago Diversion because it siphons liquid out of the lakes, mixes it with wastewater, then sends it down the Illinois and Mississippi River until it pours into the Gulf of Mexico.  Neighbors who confront the smells of the canal certainly do not romanticize it.  With abandoned silos, carbon-based industry and some pocket parks along the banks, the neighborhoods along the canal experience danger along with any pleasure that moving water provides.  On Chicago’s northside, lovely stretches remain that undergo remediation and host lush parks on the banks.  Real estate values and the city’s identity are kept aloft by preserving the name Chicago River.  The city of Chicago’s embedded segregation holds when it comes to who experiences a river and who the Sanitary and Ship Canal.

    Angel de Jesus Leon and David Bedolla discussing how the scene (near the South Branch of the Chicago River) has changed through their many visits to the “Silos” over the course of 8 years. (Photo/Citlalli Trujillo)

    The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal

    Once a river that allowed for travel, trade and connections among indigenous peoples, the marshy land around its source offered the shortest distance between the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes.  Native travelers knew how to pull their boats through the marsh and shared this knowledge with early explorers and settlers.  To colonial eyes, the swampy link between the Mississippi and Great Lakes seemed the perfect place for a permanent cut for ships to move goods.  So, in 1848, the river expanded as the Illinois-Michigan (I & M) Canal.The I & M Canal worked with the railroad system to draw resources and people into Chicago where they turned into commodities and labor.  19th century engineering quickly proved insufficient for the burgeoning metropolis.  As commodities and labor swelled, so did byproducts and waste, which spilled  into Lake Michigan,the city’s drinking water.  Outbreaks of water-borne diseases required a public health response.  This did not prompt changes in industrial scale or practices, but rather more audacious engineering.

    September 22, 1904: Laborers take a photo break during the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC) extension. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    The dawn of the twentieth century brought the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal into being: the city was lifted to accommodate an underground sewer system then the river was reversed to flush byproducts and waste.  This marks the beginning of the backward river.  Until this point, it flowed toward Lake Michigan. Thereafter, it pulled water from the lake at a momentum that drove the splash of Chicago’s toilets into the Mississippi River and, ultimately, to the Gulf of Mexico. 

    Workers pose on a dipper dredge bucket on October 16, 1899, during construction of a bypass channel on the South Branch between Van Buren St. and Adams St. The bypass channel was built to widen and deepen the river so that it could convey the required flow for the soon-to-open Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    A combination of gravity and pumps push waste in one direction — south.  This constitutes the canal’s sanitary function.

    Where waste is directed south, materials and commodities move in multiple directions. By connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River Basin, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal offers ships the possibility of moving across American rivers, through the Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.   Canals and barges seem like antiquated relics of the 19th century, but they continue to move supported by substantial public investment. One estimate figures that the public spends nearly two-billion dollars a year paying the way for private barges.

    The barge industry protects its interests by claiming to support jobs, but a policy brief from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) shows the industry to be on the decline.  In the maze of commodity transfer that occurs throughout the Greater Chicago region, barges ferry only 0.3 percent of the total goods. Yet, the expense for maintaining the industry has grown to $1.7 billion, 98% of which is subsidized by the public.

    Six barges double parked on the west bank of the Calumet River, just south of the 100th Street bridge. Transshipment facility demolition in progress. The iconic crane in the top left was leveled shortly after this picture was taken. (Photo/© Matthew Kaplan Photography)

    While the number of jobs supported by the barge industry is negligible, the harm done to communities along the canals is well documented.  The 21st century destruction of Iraq by U.S. armed forces and Erik Prince’s private militias  reverberated at midwestern oil refineries where capacity shifted from the ‘sweet’ crude of the Middle East to the ‘sour’ tar sands mined in Alberta, Canada.  Viscous and heavy, tar sands refining leaves a residue.

    A liquid cargo barge, likely transporting petroleum products, passes under the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge on the Calumet River, December 12, 2018. (Photo/© Matthew Kaplan Photography)

    In Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle the owners of meatpacking factories are cited as using every part of an animal but “the squeal.”  It was this early industrial food processing that necessitated sending the Chicago River backward.  Their modern-day counterpart is Koch Industries, a shadowy private enterprise ensconced in every stage of oil production and even Georgia-Pacific paper products.  Looking to profit from toxic dust, Koch conceived of pressing it into a substance resembling coal but even dirtier. Next Koch shot petcoke from chutes into stacks piled along the Calumet, Des Plaines and Detroit Rivers. Comprised of black powder, the wind had its way with pet coke releasing fugitive dust that darkens the sky and clogs up human lungs.

    Mountains of coagulated black dust hovered behind homes, schools and little league fields where games would be called in anticipation of a fierce thunderstorm. Residents, facing rapid property devaluation and compromised breathing, along with dust blanketing backyard cookouts, organized to remove the piles and forced the Koch Brothers to capitulate.  This marked a major environmental justice victory in the Obama era, propelling local activists like Olga Bautista into the limelight.  The Kochs continue to produce petcoke at tar sands refineries and load it onto barges, but it is difficult to determine where it is being stored or burned at any given moment.  Most of it is shipped abroad, with India as the primary client.

    Calumet River towboat with open barges crossing under the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge, March 28, 2020. (Photo/© Matthew Kaplan Photography)

    More recently, toxic Manganese has been picked up by the air monitors demanded by community members facing pet coke, requiring a renewed struggle with the barge industry and the need to quickly figure out how to protect youth from this chemical compound that causes neurological harm.

    Despite the damage and the decline in barge traffic, the shipping industry looks to protect its subsidy at all costs, including lobbying and significant campaign contributions.

    But is the canal a river?

    The Chicago River is at once the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, built to keep the city stocked with raw materials and ferry its commodities while washing sewage far beyond its sights.

    Why Have You Never Heard of the Sanitary and Ship Canal?

    Even after the water became constrained by concrete and pressured into service as country-spanning plumbing, the term river stuck to the stretches that preceded the canals.

    Since 1900 the engineered river originates from Lake Michigan, runs straight like a road through a corridor of sleek city skyscrapers then diverges into a North and a South Branch. The South Branch becomes increasingly industrial until it becomes the Sanitary and Ship Canal, easy to smell but difficult to view.

    Fisk generating station slip. (Photo/© Matthew Kaplan Photography)

    Like the pipes that drain your toilet, the canal was built to be unseen. Chicago faces Lake Michigan, which allowed the canal to literally be the city’s backend.  Designed and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), the canal never totally fell under local control or caught the public’s attention.  No one rushes to deal with a manmade river of waste.  Factories tend to be built alongside water to facilitate the release of industrial byproducts.  A waterway that people prefer not to notice proved a boon for coal-fired power plants and industry in general.  A series of fetid channels cut into neighborhoods on Chicago’s west side and pool the toxins from industrial corridors.

    The Billys talking, drinking some beers and reminiscing about old days by an outfall pipe. (Photo/Citlalli Trujillo)

    The Sanitary and Ship Canal functions within the larger Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) that drains some of North America’s most poisonous shores, the steel mill country of southeast Chicago and northwest Indiana.  Many of the big mills have long closed, leaving their hulking structures to suggest a fallen civilization and their chemical remains to metastasize in the present.  Facing shuttered mills and abandoned workers, local governments zoned the waterways as industrial corridors where standards for safety and sustainability no longer held sway.  As such, the Calumet River has long served as the Cal-Sag Channel that supplies industry with its base materials and loads its commodities.

    Former site of US Steel Plant. (Photo/Stella Brown)

    The transformation of rivers into a waterway system is confirmed by the powerlines, byproduct piles, towers and spaceship-shaped gas receptacles that line its path.  From the roads that follow the canals, one sees industry rather than water.

    Road salt piles on east bank Calumet. (Photo/© Matthew Kaplan Photography)

    Flowing beyond Chicago, the Sanitary and Ship Canal feeds its wastes into the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers before reaching the Mighty Mississippi.  All along, it mixes industrial and agricultural chemicals into the water.  The blend of Chicago sewage, industrial byproductsand agricultural runoff meets its end in the watery grave of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.

    A dead zone is what it sounds like: a place devoid of oxygen where nothing can live. 

    The life systems in streams and lakes depend on dissolved oxygen. Often referred to as a biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), this oxygen is necessary for aquatic life.

    Calumet River at sunrise, east of the Torrance Avenue bridge with Cargill facility on the north bank, Nov. 26, 2019. (Photo/© Matthew Kaplan Photography)

    Along with bodily wastes and piped chemical remains, the byproducts of industrial agriculture overflow into water.  This is called runoff that occurs when the rain peels off nutrients in manure and fertilizer from the fields where they were applied.  These nutrients make their way into bodies of water and become a food source to algae.  The algae use up the small amount of oxygen found in water to help break down nutrients. As a result, the algae bloom at an alarming rate, blocking sunlight and killing aquatic plants. Once nutrients are used up, bacteria decompose algae, releasing more nutrients into the water. 

    With more and more nutrients applied to fields and running into water, this has become a never ending cycle. In the Gulf of Mexico, the zone of death has reached the size of New Jersey.  Ironically, the source of a dead zone is excess nitrogen and phosphorus, the building blocks of life. These minerals are contained in human excrement, so Chicago’s wastewater makes a major contribution.  But the reason that dead zones can be found in bodies of water across the world is tied to the expansion of industrial agriculture.

    The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. (Image/NOAA)

    Industrial agriculture seeks high yields of low-value plants like corn and soy (fruits and vegetables, by contrast, are high-value plants).  To keep pumping out high yields of a single plant, industrial agriculture applies petroleum based fertilizers, lots of them, across its expanding American fields.  Heavy rains brought about by Climate Change easily strip fertilizer off fields and wash it into streams and rivers. All the extra nitrogen and phosphorus fuels the growth of cyanobacteria, a toxin that is also known as blue-green algae. Before the era of humans, cyanobacteria produced the oxygen atmosphere we live in. Now, it slurps up oxygen and strangles marine life. 

    These blooms also produce toxins dangerous to fish, animals and humans.  Carrying Chicago’s waste and half of America’s farm runoff, the Mississippi loads the Gulf of Mexico with nutrients that spike the Dead Zone.

    Map of measured Gulf hypoxia zone, July-Aug. 2020. (Image/LUMCON/NOAA)

    When observed as a whole, the Chicago Area Waterway System can be seen as extracting vital freshwater from Lake Michigan, degrading it with human and chemical wastes, and killing it in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Not a Marvel

    The dredging, straightening and reversal have transformed the Chicago River into a waterway managed by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) that serves the interests of capital. To be fair, this is the case with most American rivers, which led the environmental historian Richard White to dub the western Columbia River, “the organic machine.

    The sanitary dimension of the canal works like the world’s biggest toilet drawing fresh water from Lake Michigan to mix with Chicagoland’s treated effluent and push it through the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to its destination in the Gulf of Mexico. The scale of this plumbing has always had downstream implications.

    In its early days, animal body parts from the Union Stockyards syphoned to the waterways below Chicago’s skyscrapers. The dismal state of the river poisoned drinking water and drove city leaders to unprecedented engineered solutions. In the name of “water carriage technology”, a small group of city administrators, architects, and engineers, opened the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal with a blow of dynamite on New Year’s Day 1900. The explosion opened the canal trench, reversing the flow of the Chicago River to draw water from Lake Michigan and flush city waste south.

    Dynamite blasts through bedrock during the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, May 22, 1985. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    Redirecting the river extended industrial development because the 19th century coal economy of the United States required massive amounts of heat and with it massive amounts of cooling. Freshwater was crucial to the regulating mechanisms of steel furnaces and ore refineries, and therefore riverfront land was ideally suited for these great engines of the post-Civil War economy. 

    Despite visible pollution, a young boy plays with the water from the South Branch that leads into Bubbly Creek on a hot, sunny day. (Photo/Citlalli Trujillo)

    Downtown and the North Shore of Chicago were set to remain clean as the south and west sides became marked for industry and proximate worker residence. Affirming that the city of Chicago was the prioritized urban center of the Midwest, Saint Louis lost its Supreme Court suit against Chicago’s wastestream moving down the Mississippi and into their drinking water. The hierarchy of north above south reverberated on multiple levels of the project. The United States Supreme Court signed the Chicago Diversion into law in 1901. Sorry, Saint Louis. 

    Today, 7600 million liters are drawn from Lake Michigan to flush Chicago, marking the most significant sanctioned withdrawal of Great Lakes water. Despite its large size, the flushing gate hides in plain sight at Chicago’s lakefront amid a passenger boat harbor and alongside the amusements of Navy Pier.  Immediately south of Navy Pier, the gate parallels the intake pipes for Chicago’s drinking water on the northern side of the pier. This network of diversions is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency that has long been sovereign over America’s rivers and their remaking as commercial channels.  A cadre of engineers within the Armed Services, their tendency is to redesign flows to resemble mechanical systems such that rivers contain elevator-like locks to move barges in their desired direction.

    We are primed to speak of the Chicago Area Waterway System as a series of engineering marvels whose size and scale attest to progress. 

    Take this excerpt from the thick 1868 volume Chicago: Past, Present, Future by John S. Wright, the so-called “Prophet of the Prairies”: “It is clear as sunlight,” he proclaims, “that for Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Missouri, and part of Indiana and Michigan, this city must be the emporium.” According to Wright, “There never was a site more perfectly adapted by nature for a great commercial and manufacturing city, than this.” 

    As agents of progress, pipes and canals were portrayed as manifesting destiny: “the drainage canal of the Sanitary District of Chicago—one of the greatest engineering works of all time—has been built to bring Chicago into its heritage.”
    Mid-century appraisals echoed those of the 19th century. “In 1955, the American Society of Civil Engineers deemed the canal one of the “Seven Wonders of American Engineering.”

    One hundred and twenty years later, many still like to marvel at the backward river.  Others face its recurrent failures of backing up and sending sewage into Lake Michigan, the very water source the canal was intended to protect.  An honest appraisal reveals that water cannot be engineered away.  Chicago was the site of an active wetland, now paved over with channelized waters.  

    According to Drew Williams-Clark, Managing Director of Urban Resilience at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, “Swamp land is like a sponge. If flooding happens, it is supposed to go into the sponge. This filtered Lake Michigan’s water naturally. There is not enough pipe to bring that type of absorption back because the land was meant to absorb it.”

    Gawking at the wonders of engineering puts the public at a remove from our water.  If water is controlled at a massive scale from a series of fortified checkpoints functioning as locks and inaccessible to the average person, then the simple act of understanding how a water system works presents a challenge.  Absent basic understanding, it is even more difficult to grasp threats to the water.

    No system is foolproof, but the troubles associated with Chicago’s backward river are numerous.

    How might things be different if we called the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal a failure rather than a marvel?

    Dewey’s Welcome to the Channel, May 2, 1900, by Isham Randolph, Chief Engineer. (Photo/Chicago Historical Society)

    Sewer’s Revenge 

    The backward river backs up.  A metropolis has risen from wetlands that once stored and filtered copious amounts of water.  In their place concrete spreads from the lakefront into the Illinois prairie.  When rain hits these impermeable surfaces, it is moved toward storm drains.  Beneath the ground, these drains meet with those taking sewage from homes and businesses.  This is called a combined sewer system.

    As the city expands, so does its sewage.  Rain events, high volumes of rain hitting the ground in an abbreviated time period, mark a prominent effect of accelerated Climate Change in the Great Lakes region.  With only so much room to hold water, the toxic brew of sewage and rain often rises back to the surface and floods Chicago.

    The very waters intended to be sent far away from Chicago are spit up into the river through a second set of pipes.  During a rain event, these outflow pipes pour untreated water from the combined sewers back into the river.

    The gate between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River is meant to suck lakewater into the waterway system.  But, when it opens, it can spew everything unwanted out into the drinking water supply.  In this way, the backward river pollutes the lake, doing the exact thing it was designed to prevent.

    Increased rainfall also causes rising water levels. At the lake and the river, water peaks above the concrete shores and floods buildings during storms. When rain falls rapidly and the pipes are reversed, the structures and people nearby can be overwhelmed by water from multiple directions. When Chicago’s water storage capacity is exceeded, all its pipes can back up. The reversal often involves sewage returning to homes and flooding basements. These regular inundations have taught us that waste can never truly be sent away.

    Instead of confronting the failures of the Chicago Area Waterway System, a well-worn script has us marveling at its engineering and celebrating the scale of its extensions. Public financial support of the sputtering system keeps impacted communities at a distance and the Army Corps of Engineers in charge. Belief that the system works primes us for failure.

    Ditch, Sewer, Reservoir, Pipeline

    Ditch

    Skaters on ice in the bottom of the CSSC west of Kedzie Avenue. The Kedzie Avenue bridge is in the background and behind it is the Chicago, Madison and Northern Railroad bridge. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    In the early stages of its development, engineers spoke plainly about their intent for the Chicago River.  The idea was to dig a “big ditch” whose tilt would slide the most harmful byproducts off the swelling ranks of labor and the tighter crowd of capital.  In today’s parlance, we call this offshoring waste.  It is exemplified in a backward river of waste and pollution aimed at the Global South.  

    The term ‘externality’ also helps in understanding how the Chicago River functions as a pipeline.  An externality is any factor — toxins, remnant packaging, worker illness — that a given company would like to keep external to its budget.  In other words, when a company does not want to pay for something, it seeks to push the cost on somebody else.  The companies are often bound to petroleum, and that somebody tends to be the public, in particular communities of color that face barriers to influencing corporate behavior.

    For example, owners of the refineries and factories along the waterway do not want to pay for their pollution, either by cleaning  it up or by shifting their practices. Therefore, they support a system in which they release lethal chemicals into water whose treatment is financed by the public and whose source is difficult to trace.  

    The same can be said for the oil corporations driving an increase in plastic packaging to make up for shortfalls in gas profits due to decreasing use of oil and gas for transportation. Although most single-use plastic is forced on people when they procure food, its producers leave the problem of plastic islands to the public. It becomes trash foisted upon any community unlucky enough to be sold as a dump and easily removed from the view of the wealthy.

    Sewer

    TARP wet zone. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    The Chicago River was reversed to solve the issue of polluted drinking water, but its design holds an unforeseen flaw that has ended up posing one of the more acute threats to Lake Michigan.  Chicago has a combined sewer system where the drains that catch rainwater meet with the pipes that pull wastewater out of homes and businesses.  Together they travel to treatment plants before being released into the canals and rivers.  Sewers are like highways in that increasing capacity leads to increased use.  Chicago’s quickly filled.  The city’s expansion meant more concrete and less permeable ground to soak up precipitation.  Once a sequestering swamp, the Windy City meets water with cement and storm drains that fill quickly.  During a heavy rainstorm, the whole system fills and drains have nowhere to empty.  They reverse course to bring the flush back up to the surface.

    Chicago’s sewer extends north-south across America and externalizes wastes from factories and farms along the way.  It turns the world’s best freshwater into oxygen-sucking algae.  We on the Great Lakes witness the loss and abuse of our greatest treasure as those along the Gulf of Mexico withstand a full-on industrial war.  To quote the youth of Chicago, “it’s gross.”

    Reservoir

    TARP mains. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    Deficiencies of the canal and insufficiencies of the sewer system ballooned into the world’s largest reservoir of unwanted water. 

    The City with Big Infrastructure has a combined sewer of gargantuan scale called Deep Tunnel/ TARP (Tunnel and Reservoir Project) that includes 109 miles of underground caverns and three quarries turned reservoirs (with one more on the way).  At a price tag of close to $4 billion, the world’s biggest Deep Tunnel holds water during rain events and staggers its arrival at treatment plants.  When capacity becomes overloaded, the dangerous brew of effluent and runoff pours out through aqueducts into the Chicago River and spills into Lake Michigan. It can also back up to inundate city streets and residents’ homes.

    By 2029 the Army Corps of Engineers intends to complete the Deep Tunnel first dug in 1972 when contemporary levels of flooding were unimaginable and federal funding last gasped money for large infrastructure.  The Deep Tunnel is a two phase plan. Completed in 2006, phase one consisted of four underground tunnel systems: Mainstream, Calumet, O’hare, and Des Plaines, totaling 109 miles of subway size tunnels. These tunnels are 8-33 ft in diameter and 150-300 ft underground and capture the first flush of sewage totaling 2.3 billion gallons of wastewater.

    TARP mains. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    Phase two is intended to control flooding and pollution. During a “typical” rain event, the tunnels steer wastewater into three reservoirs –– basically engineered lakes –– where it sits and waits its turn to be treated, staggering its arrival at treatment plants. The Majewski reservoir holds 350 million gallons of water, the Thorton reservoir holds 7.9 billion, and the McCook reservoir holds 3.5 billion gallons, but is under construction to hold 10 billion by 2029.  Upon completion of the McCook reservoir, TARP is projected to hold 17.45 billion gallons of water and is projected to bring $693 million in flood reduction benefits to 54 communties. Today, it holds 10.95 billion gallons of water. This is enough water to fill Soldier Field 4,800 times or the Sears Tower 27 times.

    TARP tunnel. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    When its capacity becomes overloaded, water aimed at the Deep Tunnel rises above ground level.  It can inundate city streets and residents’ homes. 

    Note to reader: Don’t run your water during a rainstorm as it contributes to system overflow.  During times of flood, hold off on dishes, laundry, even showering.

    Check the storm drains on your street from time to time.  Garbage buildup can prevent drainage and deluge streets.

    Think about planting trees and a rain garden to help soak up precipitation.

    As another Army Corps of Engineers project, TARP extends the canal, backs it up with more grey infrastructure and further embeds the backward river in the landscape.  Because the two are so integrally related, it comes as no surprise that the booster language associated with the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal reverberates in public discourse about the Deep Tunnel.

    A decade ago, the Deep Tunnel was described as …the biggest and most ambitious project to attack the problem of pollution in area streams and Lake Michigan.”

    Since its conception, Deep Tunnel has been held in high regard as “the largest undertaking of its kind ever attempted by mankind.”

    Its revolutionary attempt to bottle extreme rainstorms “was an innovative solution, and the best one the City of Chicago had.”

    The Deep Tunnel does, in fact, keep the city above water and capture billions of gallons of water.  It answered a federal mandate to protect drinking water, reduce floods and backups and improve water quality of Illinois waterways as contaminants and toxins were accumulating.  However, the Deep Tunnel/TARP Project was designed in 1960 based on 1940 rainfall records. Its capacity already fell short when it was constructed. Amidst accelerated Climate Change, the volume of combined sewers often exceeds its massive scale.  In the regular reversal of the pipes from taking water away to bringing water to the surface, the Deep Tunnel reinforces the failures of the Chicago Area Waterway System.

    The Deep Tunnel was slated for completion in 1984, meaning that it is 45 years behind schedule. This means that its plan is 45 years behind processes of Climate Change, urbanization and population growth.

    The impacts of global Climate Change exacerbate the failures risked by Deep Tunnel. Precipitation in the Midwest has increased by 9% since 1991, the most of any region in the U.S., followed by the Northeast (8%) and southern Great Plains (8%). According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the warming atmosphere sparks more evaporation that causes the region’s increased floods, a trend that is projected to continue and will result in more displacement throughout the Midwest. 

    Technically, these are no longer rain storms, but rain events in which a high volume of precipitation descends in an abbreviated time period and overwhelms human systems. These events are compounded by the combined sewers of large cities like Chicago in which rain runoff from storm drains blends with everything pouring from domestic and commercial pipes.  When relatively clean rain mixes with untreated sewage, all of the water in question becomes waste.  You do not want it rising in your basement.  The effluent of combined sewers moves south even during town-leveling floods along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. 

    On the upside, the Deep Tunnel has eliminated 85 percent of combined sewer overflows (CSOs). But, what about the other 15 percent? Even with the Deep Tunnel, the Chicago Tribune reported increased dumping of wastewater into rivers and the lake.  A system still under construction releases more and more untreated human and industrial waste blended with runoff filled with bacteria, toxins, chemicals, and debris. Just as little as 0.3 inches (0.762 cm) of rain is enough to initiate combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in over 300 sewage outfalls into the Chicago River. In 2019, more than 50 CSOs were recorded. According to 2017 research, an average of 318 million gallons of water is poured into the Chicago River during and after rain events. When the gate between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River opens for boat travel, wastewater streams into the source of drinking water for around 10 million people.  This recurring public health hazard represents exactly the opposite of what the canal and the Deep Tunnel were intended to do. Swollen by outfall pipes, the backward river returns to its original course.

    TARP tunnel. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    The failures of the canal and Deep Tunnel are not uniformly experienced.  Instead, low-income communities on the South Side of Chicago experience the most and the worst flooding. Between 2007 and 2016, flood damage insurance payments totaled more than $400 million, where 87 percent were paid by citizens in communities of color. That is 199,876 claims by communities of color which is 569.22% more compared to the number of 29,867 claims by non-Hispanic white communities. 

    Even with the Deep Tunnel in place, communities of color bear the brunt of urban flooding. To indicate the severity of this issue, of all households that reported flooding, 35% are located in high flooding communities of color. 85% of all city claims are of high flooding in minority neighborhoods. This statistic comprises 75% of insurance payments, totalling around $326 million with a median household income of $35,000. This is about half of the median household income of non-hispanic white households of $69,000. These areas compose 3% of all city claims and account for 10% of  insurance payments totalling around $14 million. 

    Another glaring disadvantage that communities of color face with urban flooding is underestimation of flood risks in federal flood maps managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These flood maps do not take into account stormwater and are not updated to include new flood areas. New data from First Street showed a 12.5% difference of properties at risk reported. This amounts to an additional 75,000 properties that are susceptible to flooding. According to this data, Englewood, a neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside where 95% of residents identify as African American, has the greatest risk.  The impacts of Climate Change and the shortcomings of Chicago’s favorite marvels puts the most vulnerable at a disadvantage.

    TARP. (Photo/Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago)

    If the Chicago River is a pipeline, then the Deep Tunnel resembles the oil fields that feed it.  It holds water from storm drains on the street and combines them with the pipes from homes and factories.  The idea is to stagger the arrival of these swelling waters to water treatment plants so that they do not become so overwhelmed that sewage pours back into the river, the lake and people’s homes. Known to be expensive, it remains difficult to arrive at a number that encompasses all the costs of flooding.  According to its 2020 Budget, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District –– the agency that oversees Cook County’s drains ––  allocates around $541 million a year for water collection, treatment, flood, and pollution control.  While noble and necessary to curb flooding and pollution in Chicagoland, it remains shortsighted to simply pump the problem southward.

    Returning to our metaphor, the treatment plants work like oil refineries except that the partially treated water pours back into the canal and becomes waste instead of a product of value. In this way, the Deep Tunnel resembles unproductive oil fields that lose money.

    Pipeline

    The Sanitary and Ship Canal connects the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River, extending the pipeline from the shores of Lake Michigan to downstate Illinois. Currents eventually surge into the Illinois River and drain into the Mississippi River. The Great Lakes are thus connected to the Gulf of Mexico. Petroleum storage, refining and shipping defines this river network.  The consequences of the oil-water mixture impact people from Canada all the way to Gulf of Mexico ports. 

    New additions of microplastics and agricultural nutrients move with barges and waste through the network joined by the canal.  Little is done at any scale to publicize or ameliorate the impacts of these pollutants.  Instead, the canal comes into view with the living things that move through it.  Public discussions around invasive species become the flashpoint for larger questions about what and who belongs where.

    Everything that courses through a pipeline is introduced. Such things enter a pipeline through a set of decisions made by the pipeline operator.  When a corporation wants to move oil toward a market, they push it through a pipeline.  When a factory wants to get rid of chemical byproducts, they pipe it outside the plant.  After we have used water, we send it down the drain. When Chicago could no longer confront its waste, it built the canal. Pipes reflect intention in their very direction. 

    In the case of the canal, the operator is the Army Corps of Engineers.  Tasked with trying to eliminate Chicagoland’s wastewater, they habitually introduce it to downstream rivers.  In their historical relationship with coal, oil and gas industries, ACE ensures the easy passage of barges and petroleum wastes.  Amid congressional interests in private petroleum developments, ACE is charged with issuing permits to pipeline developers. Under its regulatory programming, the agency is responsible for monitoring and addressing the impacts of pipelines on federal waters, wetlands, and water resource projects. Yet decisions from ACE tend to protect private interests over public ones, even rescinding recommendations against the oil industry’s degradation of water quality. In an effort to promote shipping on the Mississippi, ACE cut corners in engineering that worsened the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In 2018, the agency issued a permit for the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline despite a federal court decision that found ACE routinely dismissed the risks and effects of oil spills. Said differently, ACE introduces external chemicals and vessels into American rivers.  These could be named invasive elements but they are seen as natural, inevitable components of the system.

    The Army Corps of Engineers wants to fortify its systems against particular invaders: four species of carp.

    Labeled “bio-invaders” and “Asian carp,” these fish were first imported to the U.S. as a natural form of pollution control, and later released into the Mississippi watershed in the 1980s. Referring to the carp alone as “invasive” suggests the other things circulating in the canal belong there by right. 

    By placing agency on the carp as invaders, the Corps portrays rivers as besieged by alien elements.  This obscures the many ways in which opening channels for shipping will inevitably introduce organisms from one watershed to another.

    The widely circulating story that carp escaped from Arkansas ponds into nearby rivers during floods in the 1960s emphasizes their agency. But there’s more to it.  In his book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Dan Egan explains that researchers at the U.S. Department of Interior’s Fish Farming Experimental Laboratory originally imported grass carp from Malaysia in 1963 to introduce them to catfish farms in Arkansas in place of chemical weed control. 

    Within ten years, a private catfish farmer, also living in Arkansas, ordered what he thought were grass carp; instead he unintentionally imported the three other species – silver, bighead, and black carp. Rather than release the carp into his catfish farms, the farmer gave the fish to state fishery workers. The state fishery made an agreement with the farmer that the fishery would experiment with breeding the carp, and if they were successful, they would trade back some of the stock. While they had little luck with black carp, the state was successful with silver and bighead carp, reproducing them by the millions. The carp were then used in an experiment to clean sewers, which raised alarm with the FDA. After funds for the experiment expired in conjunction with FDA shutting the program down, the state released the silver and  bighead carp into Arkansas streams in 1980. It assumed that the fish would struggle to reproduce in natural conditions, however by 1994, the carp were appearing in rivers throughout the Mississippi Basin.  

    The umbrella term Asian carp has made it easy to conflate the three species migrating up the Mississippi – black, silver, and bighead – and to assume that they all jump in a crazed frenzy, knocking teeth from heads and smacking sportsmen from boats. Scenes reminiscent of the television series Duck Dynasty depict carp furiously leaping through the surface of rivers.  But the jumping fish are, in fact, just the silver carp. The bighead and black carp are much less visual, hovering near the riverbed, and much more difficult to detect. Now four species grouped under the moniker of Asian Carp inhabit the Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers amidst alarm that they will soon reach Lake Michigan and to continue spreading throughout the Great Lakes. While the ecological and economic problems the carp pose are legitimate, dubbing the fish Asian carp racializes the issue. It can cloud the thinking of Rust Belt folk primed to think of their economic woes as caused by Asian economies. The term Asian is deployed to suggest that these fish pose unique threats that can only be dealt with through military technologies and elaborate borders in the water.  

    The term “invasive species” evokes an ecosystem filled with vulnerable natives. Framed as international foreigners poised to invade, we begin to imagine invasive species threatening a stabilized ecosystem in balance with an even distribution of native species. When we call a canal a river, we bring a whole sense of “what belongs.” But when we start seeing it as a pipe, we can ask a whole series of questions about what moves in the pipe. 

    Describing a wave of migrating species as an onslaught and ‘an invasion,’ stirs up public emotion and attendant funding to remove or bar arrivals.  In the scurry to protect natives –construed as those frightened by invasives, not indigenous peoples — the military is tapped for protection.   When it comes to carp, the Army Corps of Engineers’ plans resemble a more effective version of the agency’s project on America’s southern border, where ACE coordinated the construction of Trump’s wall

    Still, the rhetoric of invasion shifts depending on federal aims. Despite its charge to conserve native species, the agency has approved the clearing of ancient saguaros for concrete. While the rhetoric of ecological nativism mobilizes the erection of walls in water, the same anti-immigration sentiment justifies desecrating native flora and fauna and dismissing human life. Novelist and activist on the Southern Border Luis Urrea describes the convenient paradox in Army Corps’ logic. The carp are elevated to a kind of super-human status as invaders against the “native” in Midwestern rivers. Meanwhile, along the border, humans are degraded as subhuman to justify clearing native cacti for a wall.

    Who’s In Charge of the Pipeline?

    The Army Corps of Engineers presides over American rivers and serves as first responder for panic about invasive species. The Corps’ lengthy 2014 Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS) addresses how the merger of these mighty basins involved large scale transfer of plant and animal species.  

    CAWS (Image/David Wilson)

    Institutional procedure holds that those who file reports tend to instrumentalize them in order to work on their preferred approach, so it makes perfect sense that as various agencies debated GLMRIS, the Corps got busy building electric barriers at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam on the Des Plaines River between where the Sanitary and Ship Canal pours in and the Des Plaines drains into the Mighty Mississippi.  The riverine “chokepoint” became a checkpoint for carp.  Like overland checkpoints in disputed territories, the carp checkpoint ushers in what is deemed desirable (for instance, barges) and blocks what is construed as threatening (Asian Carp).

    Three electric barriers were erected at the Romeoville Lock and Dam. The barriers, designed, built, and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers emit a field of electrodes extending twenty-five feet deep and reaching across the canal at 160 feet wide. As with the canal before, the scale and technical display of the electric fences have been hailed as the first of their kind. The electric barriers follow the contradictory logic of checkpoints in general: the desire to maintain perceived group integrity necessitates borders and walls.  Through the magical evocation of unspecified jobs, the barge and chemical industries keep the canal open even as their economic contribution and viability wanes.  Even as ACE  fights an aquatic nuisance species along the path of effluent and barges, concern about eradicating the carp drives public funding for the security of a checkpoint.  The invasive species threat is profound, yet the canal remains open and the invested agencies turn toward the silver bullet of technology for a solution. As aroused natives look to the Army Corps of Engineers for protection, global shipping continues apace, unhindered by the war on invasive species as it continues to ferry new arrivals.

    Concern over carp reaching the Great Lakes is valid. The fish bear the markers of most unwelcome species. Silver and bighead carp reproduce rapidly and disrupt the food chain. Feeding on up to half their own body weight, they tend to out-eat other fish. It’s helpful to think of carp like aquatic vacuum cleaners: to eat, they simply open their mouths and swim. Yet, while carp eat a lot, they have quite particular diets for  plankton. The problem is that plankton plays a critical role in the food chain. Thus, the carp are poised to out-eat the fish currently inhabiting the lakes, effectively destroying a 7-billion-dollar fishing industry in the Great Lakes, not to mention a 4-billion-dollar recreational industry.

    Media images of the carp emphasize the proliferant characteristics of the fish, focusing on their racialized status as “Asian,” rather than the infrastructure facilitating their movement. Rather than scrutinize the connection between the Great Lakes and the Gulf, the same language used to raise alarm around immigration stirs up nativist panic around the carp. The militarized underscoring of the fish as “bio-invaders” and “foreign” demands costly military intervention.

    Who Benefits from the Pipeline?

    Despite the engineering ingenuity embodied by the barriers at Brandon Road, there’s some doubt about their efficacy.  No one can say for sure whether the barriers will actually stop the carp should they move beyond the Des Plaines to the canal. 

    Thus, the Army Corps, acting in character, followed up on GLMRIS with the Brandon Road Report, championing the checkpoint and requesting additional funds to bolster carp deterrents.  But by the February 2017 report release date the bounds of normativity had been stretched considerably.  After filing the report through official channels, ranking members of the Corps were taken aback by a hold placed by the Trump White House.

    ACE GLMRIS design

    Trump’s central campaign promises were to build a wall and halt the flow of Chinese goods, so suppression of recommendations for electric fences to repel Asian Carp seemed incongruous.  In his book, The Great Lakes Water Wars, journalist Peter Annin notes that the White House held the Corps’s report following a Chicago Tribune op-ed by then Republican Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti blasting the unreleased report and vowing that the state of Illinois would oppose the plan in order to prevent barge bottlenecks.  Sanguinetti further called on the White House to delay the project through extended review.  Annin infers that the White House tuned into Springfield’s plee motivated by trepidation that the report named Illinois as the project’s “nonfederal partner” on the line for hundreds of millions of dollars.  

    Illinois, with only 63 miles of Lake Michigan coastline, is something of an outlier among Great Lakes states. But again the charisma of carp and bluster of politicians distracts our gaze from the self-serving jujutsu of corporate interests.  Annin’s implication that the report was leaked seems correct, yet the leak more likely trickled to the barge industry.  Hostile to any proposal that might add time and thus wages to the cost of shipping and existentially committed to remaining on the public dole while waving the banner of jobs, barge executives and their clients in the chemical industry simultaneously lobbied the Rauner (former Illinois Republican governor 2015-19) and the Trump administrations to shelf a report looking to keep the Corps on the river and the spectre of technology as savior.

    While some senators sought to delay the movement of carp, others looked to delay the Army Corps’ rollout.  In February 2017, 16 Republican members of Congress advocated for the barge industry in a letter to Trump, asking for the report to wait until the newly Republican Senate confirmed a new Army assistant secretary responsible for overseeing ACE. The report was shelved until June 2017, when a rallying cry propelled by the discovery of an adult silver carp nine miles from the Lake Michigan shoreline forced the release of the report for public consideration. The proposal recommends a technological suite involving a sweeping development of acoustic deterrents and electric barriers at Brandon Road. 

    The latest proposal from ACE is an expensive fix for keeping the canal open while halting carp at the border.  Conservative estimates tag the project at $831 million while others reach closer to a billion dollars for what can best be called a porous checkpoint.  Once again, instead of funding to mitigate toxicity and displacement, frenzy around “invasion” channels public dollars to militarized solutions.

    In its proposed defenses against carp, the Army Corps of Engineers defines the care for our waters too narrowly, failing to address flooding, nutrient overload, or recurrent chemical spills.  Instead the canal only becomes visible, and thus worthy of funds, when it comes to invasive species and militarized solutions.  Focusing on the fish obscures the industries served by this publicly-funded infrastructure and defrays responsibility for impacts and clean-up, which should be under the auspices of ACE, onto local communities who suffer the consequences of a backward river.

    Defund ACE

    With so many systems breaking down around us, why should we think now about changing the way wastewater is treated in Chicagoland?  If the Army Corps of Engineers were to stand down from the Chicago Area Waterway System, then who would be in charge?

    The matter demands urgency because the Great Lakes region now receives more rain that hits the ground so quickly it overwhelms infrastructure.  Accelerated Climate Change causes more precipitation and more violent storms.  Lake levels have reached record highs with uneven precipitation patterns to come.  Homes, businesses and community spaces will see more flooding, more damage, more loss.  Flooding is serious enough but its dangers multiply when the sewer system backs up bringing the flush into buildings and untreated waste pouring up out of the river.

    Alton, Illinois (The Telegraph Photo/John Badman)

    Reimagining the presence of bighead and silver carp could go a long way toward healing the river system. While the canal may be here to stay, we can repurpose its use. The riverway is funded by close to 2 billion public dollars, giving us the  right to redirect money away from oil profiteers and toward the preservation of our watershed. 

    Rather than perpetuate the racialized rhetoric that justifies technocratic solutions, we can take actions that demilitarize our sacred streams. The impacts of Climate Change that cause superstorms and flooding accelerate the need to transform how we think of water. In an interview with the Freshwater Lab, Indigenous Artist Santiago X warns that when the oil industry has authority over land and water the original inhabitants, whose way of life is under siege, must defend resources used by all.

    As opposed to extractive logics, Santiago X, a member both the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana (Koasati) and Indigenous Chamorro of Guam (Hacha’Maori), calls for an enlightened approach that connects us with “the waterways and with their importance apart from corporate interests.” Similarly, Fawn Pochel, a member of First Nations Oji-Cree and Education Coordinator for the American Indian Center, claims many Indigenous perspectives view the river through a framework of kinship. The river traditionally connected families throughout the region. It was fundamental to trade and travel, but not in an industrial sense. Pochel describes the relationship between humans and rivers as reciprocal. In return for human care of the river, the river sustains communities.

    These perspectives offer a crucial shift in the representation of waterways and the species within them. Where the language of “bio-terrorism” and “invasion” cue military action along rivers, Indigenous approaches enact reciprocity premised on healing. Metaphors, argues Izayotilmahtzin Mazehualli, are key to understanding rivers: “Indigenous perspectives often rely on poetry and metaphor to understand and describe what water is. Technocratic solutions keep us trapped in 20th century modernity and fantasies of dominating water. Our focus should include shifting to the symbolism offered by water. Rivers teach us to be adaptable, to flow with emotional complexity, and to be in synchronicity with the ecosystem around us.”

    One of the ways we can move away from harmful metaphors toward symbols that heal the watershed is to call carp food. Dirk Fucet, owner of Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop, a Chicago seafood store, has hosted barbecues touting the benefits of carp burgers. To the average person wanting to know how they can help stop carp, Fucet says, “you can eat it.” Fucet joins an ever-growing chorus crying “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em,” leaning on our palettes to protect the Great Lakes.  He offers a recipe for Mediterranean carp burgers with arugula, tzatziki, and pickled onions. His shop was featured recently in the New York Times as the place-to-go when you want to eat well.

    In their project, “Eat the River, Heal the River,” artists Sarah Lewison and Andrew S. Yang envision a thriving watershed amid climate change. Like Dirk Fucet, Lewison and Yang point toward the nutritional benefits of consuming carp. In an interview with the Freshwater Lab, they argued that eating introduced fish isn’t a new idea – most of the fish in the Great Lakes are introduced

    When we frame the fish as invaders, we no longer address privatized interests benefitting from the current infrastructure. “Invasive species are a symptom, not a cause,” the artists said. Eating the carp is a matter of environmental justice: “We need to move to models of ecology that aren’t extractive.” The carp processing program Fin Gourmet exemplifies an ecological model of holistic environmental healing. Their approach turns to the ecological and cultural waylays to restore justice to both. Established in Kentucky, the founders reimagine how people and new species can adapt to the changing water geography through a framework of equity and healing. They hire people released from prison to staff their efforts to reimagine how we eat amidst Climate Change.

    We need to change how we talk about where fish belong. Yang and Lewison are galvanized by examples like Fin Gourmet, suggesting we are only beginning to scratch the surface of new possibilities in our watershed. The 21st century has dawned and antiquated approaches that rely on engineered solutions shouldn’t limit our imaginations.

    Backward River to Table

    Reimagining the presence of bighead and silver carp could go a long way toward healing the river system. While the canal may be here to stay, we can repurpose its use. The riverway is funded by close to 2 billion public dollars, giving us the  right to redirect money away from oil profiteers and toward the preservation of our watershed. 

    Rather than perpetuate the racialized rhetoric that justifies technocratic solutions, we can take actions that demilitarize our sacred streams. The impacts of Climate Change that cause superstorms and flooding accelerate the need to transform how we think of water. In an interview with the Freshwater Lab, Indigenous Artist Santiago X warns that when the oil industry has authority over land and water the original inhabitants,  whose way of life is under siege, must defend resources used by all.

    As opposed to extractive logics, Santiago X, a member both the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana (Koasati) and Indigenous Chamorro of Guam (Hacha’Maori), calls for an enlightened approach that connects us with “the waterways and with their importance apart from corporate interests.” Similarly, Fawn Pochel, a member of First Nations Oji-Cree and Education Coordinator for the American Indian Center, claims many Indigenous perspectives view the river through a framework of kinship. The river traditionally connected families throughout the region. It was fundamental to trade and travel, but not in an industrial sense. Pochel describes the relationship between humans and rivers as reciprocal. In return for human care of the river, the river sustains communities.

    These perspectives offer a crucial shift in the representation of waterways and the species within them. Where the language of “bio-terrorism” and “invasion” cue military action that perpetuates slow violence along the rivers, Indigenous approaches enact as opposed to a reciprocity premised on healing. Metaphors, argues Izayotilmahtzin Mazehualli, are key to understanding rivers: “Indigenous perspectives often rely on poetry and metaphor to understand and describe what water is. Technocratic solutions keep us trapped in 20th century modernity and fantasies of dominating water. Our focus should include shifting to the symbolism offered by water. Rivers teach us to be adaptable, to flow with emotional complexity, and to be in synchronicity with the ecosystem around us.”

    One of the ways we can move away from harmful metaphors toward symbols that heal the watershed is to call carp food. Some folks in our watershed already embrace carp as food. Dirk’s Fish and Gourmet Shop, a Chicago seafood store, has hosted barbecues touting the benefits of carp burgers. To the average person wanting to know how they can help stop carp, Dirk Fucet says, “you can eat it.” Fucet joins an ever-growing chorus crying “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em,” leaning on our palettes to protect the Great Lakes.  He offers a recipe for Mediterranean carp burgers with arugula, tzatziki, and pickled onions. His shop was featured recently in the New York Times as the place-to-go when you want to eat well.

    In their project, “Eat the River, Heal the River,” artists Sarah Lewison and Andrew S. Lang envision a thriving watershed amid climate change. Like Fucet, Lewison and Lang point toward the nutritional benefits of consuming carp. In an interview with the Freshwater Lab, they argued that eating introduced fish isn’t a new idea – most of the fish in the Great Lakes are introduced

    When we frame the fish as invaders, we no longer address privatized interests benefitting from the current infrastructure. “Invasive species are a symptom, not a cause,” the artists said. Eating the carp is a matter of environmental justice: “We need to move to models of ecology that aren’t extractive.” The carp processing program Fin Gourmet exemplifies an ecological model of holistic environmental healing. Their approach turns to the ecological and cultural waylays to restore justice to both. Established in Kentucky, the founders reimagine how people and new species can adapt to the changing water geography through a framework of equity and healing. They hire people released from prison to staff their efforts to reimagine how we eat amidst Climate Change.

    We need to change how we talk about where fish belong. Lang and Lewison are galvanized by examples like Fin Gourmet, suggesting we are only beginning to scratch the surface of new possibilities in our watershed. The 21st century has dawned and antiquated approaches that rely on engineered solutions shouldn’t limit our imaginations.

    Think Locally

    As historically industrial and immigrant communities, Pilsen and Little Village are Chicago neighborhoods whose residents are working  to shift industry practices from fossil fuel to clean energy. 

    Pilsen is a neighborhood on Chicago’s Lower West Side that straddles the South Branch and the Sanitary and Ship Canal.  Since the 1840’s, it was the first stop for immigrants from all over the world. Immigrants would flock in and out of Pilsen until it became an established Latinx community that accounts for 70.7% of the current population . The values of this neighborhood have always been deeply rooted in preserving culture and identity, affordability, fighting for immigrant rights and promoting a sustainable community. It is known for the Fiesta de Sol, an annual fundraising event that is representative of Mexican culture and social transformation through community organizing.  

    Little Village is located in Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood and commonly known as La Villita. The community sits along the Sanitary and Ship Canal. It shares similarities with Pilsen as a Latinx neighborhood that account for 84% of the population. The neighborhood has more than 1,000 businesses concentrated on 26th Street, known as the “Mexican Magnificent Mile,” and is also a landmark that welcomes Mexicans in the Midwest.  Little Village is known for its grassroots leadership in environmental justice and a just transition that puts workers first in the shift away from fossil fuels. 

    Due to their proximity to the Sanitary and Ship Canal, Pilsen and Little Village are sites for industry and are profitable locations for developers. Pilsen is bordered by the Pilsen Industrial Corridor and the Sanitary and Ship Canal Corridor. Little Village borders the Little Village Corridor, the Little Village East Corridor, and the Sanitary and Ship Canal Corridor. The lack of open space for recreation and riverfront development has plagued the neighborhoods for many years. 

    In 2014, the Pilsen-Little Village River Corridor Project was established to improve the environmental quality of the water of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal Corridor from Bubbly Creek to west of Pulaski Road on the Southwest Side. The goal of the project is to improve historically contaminated waterways such as the Sanitary and Ship Canal, Bubbly Creek, and Little Village 31st Collateral Channel by developing open spaces, improving native landscapes and eliminating sediments and odors. This project seeks to inform the public of the current conditions and the need for access to a safe and clean riverfront that can provide healthy recreational activities to the communities that border the river. These communities, which have been sites of historical environmental injustices, include Bridgeport, Pilsen, Little Village, Brighton Park, Archer Heights, and McKinley Park. Local communities launched the project through neighborhood organizations like Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (P.E.R.R.O), Friends of the Chicago River, and the Chicago Legal Clinic.

    The project area starts at Bubbly Creek with Park 571 and Canal Origins Park. The vision is for it to continue downstream to include the Canalport Riverwalk, the sites of the former  Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants and La Villita Park. Local environmental justice groups would like to see the same sort of investment that was made in downtown Chicago’s Riverwalk made in their 3.3 mile segment of the Chicago Waterway System.  As part of this broader transformation, neighborhood residents would like to see the name and the nature of the Sanitary and Ship Canal become more appealing.  

    However, this section of the Chicago River continues to be a site of industrial activity with no signs of it slowing down. 

    According to a recent publication by Block Club Chicago, the City Commision approved a $30 million Amazon Logistics Facility in the Pilsen Industrial Corridor that also borders Bridgeport and the South Branch of the River. The building will be 112,000 square feet in size with 487 parking spaces. City and neighborhood organizations such as the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC ), Bridgeport Alliance, Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice, Active Transportation Alliance and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) were strongly against the proposal. The public health risks and environmental impacts brought by heavy diesel truck activity continue to be a main concern to communities due to proximity to industry. Online retail distribution centers are concentrated along the waterways that run through environmental justice communities; the warehouse jobs used to justify development and public subsidy tend to be low-paying with unsafe work environments.

    The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization is broadcasting that polluting industries do not have a place  in their neighborhood. They are protesting Hilco’s plans to build a one-million-square foot Target distribution center at the former site of the Crawford Coal Plant. Their billboard campaign shows a little girl wearing a face mask that reads “Exchanging coal for diesel doesn’t save her lungs. #Exchange55 #FueraHilco.”  It also directs people to sign the petition to stop construction.

    The former Crawford Coal Plant was demolished earlier this year without warning on Easter weekend in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. That same day, reports showed that Latinx people  had the second highest COVID death rate in Chicago. LVEJO is committed to bring about a just transition at  the former Crawford site in which residents of the community are  involved in the process of shifting from dirty industry. They want redevelopment of the area to provide healthier jobs, leisure and recreation that can spur economic growth. The community of Little Village no longer wants to be a human filter for air pollution.  The Hilco redevelopment plan goes against their goals and desires.

    Plans for development and economic growth exist at the community level, produced by organizations and professionals. The city, however, continues to broker deals with companies that override these plans and ignore the calls for public health and environmental justice. The conditions of Climate Change require more attention to local strategies that undo harm. Development along the Sanitary and Ship Canal  continues to exclude community voices and prioritizes profits over the people. Communities also worry that development will lead to gentrification and displacement. 

    Our recent survey of Pilsen residents suggests that community members remain largely unaware of recent development proposals and feel left out of the process.  The survey also shows  that residents notice the disparity in investment along the North and the South Branches of the River. Furthermore, they describe the open spaces near industrial sites on the South Branch and Canal as “abandoned,” “gross,” “polluted with heavy metals,” and “full of garbage.”

    Decommission the Pipeline

    Pulling leaky, malfunctioning pipelines from the ground or water is technically easy yet politically difficult. The difficulties faced by homeowners, citizens and tribal governments when they do not want an oil pipeline on their land shows how embedded, outdated systems continue to confer public funds on a few private enterprises.

    Stopping a proposed pipeline requires protest, lawsuits, media campaigns, divestment by investors and environmental legislation. When a pipeline corporation, like the Canadian Enbridge that runs lines around and through the Great Lakes, decides to decommission a pipe, they prefer to simply leave it in place to decay in a contaminated ribbon across the land. This, for example, is Enbridge’s desire when it comes to Line 3 that runs across Minnesota. Citizen groups have been active in demanding that Enbridge clean up its Line 3 mess and desist from causing more damage to the Lake Superior and Mississippi watersheds. As of this writing , an expanded Line 3 is moving at a steady clip through the Minnesota approval process.

    Decommissioning American rivers as pipelines should be more straightforward. With the expansion of trucking (so-called logistics) and the decline in fossil fuel demand, the number of jobs and return on investment for sizable public subsidies of the barge industry is negligible. Spills, leaks and runoffs threaten everyone between Lake Michigan and the Gulf of Mexico with dead zones and toxic floodwaters. A majority of Americans support the transition from dirty fossil fuels to renewable energy. Like people everywhere, they also need to drink water. Getting fossil fuel barges off the Mississippi and its tributaries would significantly improve drinking water and public health for everyone east of the Rocky Mountains.

    The most direct way to decommission the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) as a pipeline is to redirect the barge industry’s subsidy. Companies like the secretive, privately held Koch Industries do not need to be on the public dole. CEO Charles Koch, ranked in 2019 as the 11th-richest person in the world, is a vocal opponent of all forms of welfare. It seems high time that he got off it.

    The negative impacts of our current mode of handling wastewater are diffuse. Combined sewer overflows pose health risks to anyone in Cook County whose home, basement or street floods during a rain event. The flushing of partly treated wastewater to the Gulf of Mexico swells flood waters along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers and feeds an enormous Gulf Dead Zone. As documented by the Illinois State Water Survey, aquifers in multiple counties are teetering at dangerously low levels due to increasing population and industrial development.  

    In communities along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and upper Des Plaines River, there is a desire for clean jobs that offer safety and stability for current and future generations. At present, diesel truck delivery is expanding in this area at a rapid rate due to construction of logistics centers visited by large vehicles. As communities in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood and near Joliet raise their voices in objection to the public health risks posed by heavy diesel trucking, they sound the call for the creation of labor that is sustainable in both economic and environmental terms.  

    Instead of paying for the transport of commodities that speed up Climate Change and threaten property and livelihood, we could fund clean industry in Illinois.

    Backward to the Future

    We can address problems of flooding and drought by building systems that reflect 21st century knowledge as they facilitate economic growth and more widespread financial stability.  We can revitalize our rivers as corridors of clean industry and innovation.  The perfect place to begin the transformation is along America’s most engineered waterway: the backward Chicago River.  

    El Paso’s Water Purification Facility is under design to become the first pipe to pipe system. It consists of a multi-barrier approach to water treatment that will produce up to 12 mgd of purified, renewable, drought proof water. (Photo/Carlos A. Briano, Lead Public Affairs Coordinator, El Paso Water)

    We envision a water recycling industry that turns wastewater into clean water available for agriculture, industry, and data cooling centers.  Water recycling plants can anchor industrial complexes that simultaneously capture methane and biogas to feed the grid and harvest minerals to be reused in products.  As the MWRD does with its fertilizer Ostara, phosphorus and nitrogen can be harvested from wastewater, used in food production and kept from fueling the explosion of harmful algal blooms that become dead zones.  Along with the jobs in building these systems, water recycling complexes will host permanent, skilled work.

    Chicago’s diversion of Lake Michigan water, along with its copious rain and aquifers of greywater, is pumped at great cost into the Gulf of Mexico.  The migration of bighead and silver carp has brought renewed attention to this system.  As ACE looks to build a wall in the water, other proposals have considered restoring the divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins.  These proposals puzzled about what would happen to Chicago’s wastewater.  We propose that it would move from existing treatment plants to recycling complexes and into pipes that supply farms and industries with needed water.  The water would be treated to a drinking water level should drought become so bad that it is required.  However, this water treated to the same level as drinking water would be sold to bulk users of water.  Recycled water would be available to bulk users at rates considerably more attractive than the rate for source water.

    By generating revenue where we currently pay to ship waste, the sale of recycled water can support water affordability plans.  Rates for the water used for drinking, cooking, and bathing require revision so that they are equitable and affordable.  No one in the United States, not to mention the water rich Great Lakes basin, should go without water in their home.  Commercial and industrial users of water, who make a profit from this public commons, should have higher rates.  Should they choose recycled water, then they can enjoy considerable savings and support this local market.

    Grafton, Ilinois (The Telegraph Photo/John Badman)

    The savings will ripple: no need for a billion dollar wall in the Des Plaines River, fewer losses in urban flooding, no looming crisis of aquifer collapse and devastation of agriculture, a strategy for reducing the town-leveling deluges along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.  Rather than puzzling over it and paying to export waste, we need to reuse it at an industrial scale. Not even the high-flying Silver carp can jump across a recycling complex.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel net Silver carp jumping in the Fox River. (Photo/Ryan Hagerty, USFWS)

    The Great Lakes region with its copious water should be a thriving place in the 21st century.  Without ways to address flooding and sewage, we will not achieve this status.  The federal government supports water reuse in the Western United States as a solution for drought, we should attract similar funding to address flooding in the Midwest and to anchor our post-COVID 19 economic recovery.

    In a world increasingly saturated in petrochemicals, there is no longer an away where we can send our waste.  Currently, we treat precious rain like garbage, hurting humans and their ecosystems all along the way.  In the City of Big Shoulders and gargantuan water infrastructure, we cannot stay focused on narrow, antiquated plans.  We need to pioneer new systems that allow us to survive and thrive.  Chicago should be the capital of the Water Belt.