Before the Canal

The Chicago River once flowed gently into Lake Michigan, meandering through a spongy wetland that sprouted the “zhegagosh,” the pungent wild onion rooted in the city’s name.

The river’s two natural branches met at a middle that was destined to become downtown and to forever divide the city into north and south sides. A coastal river, the little Chicago turned through a freshwater slough. But city leaders and engineers cut a canal through wetlands and prairie to force the Chicago to meet the Mississippi. As a result, the lazy creek has a history of hyperbole: It is the first river to have its flow reversed by an industrial system of pumps and locks. It fuses via its canal the distinct Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds like freeways for barge traffic. It serves as the world’s biggest toilet by flushing Chicagoland’s waste and rain all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

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. In the other, the canal is the pathway for unwelcome species, known as “bio-invaders,” who threaten the Great Lakes.

The River Speaks

Indigenous traditions relate to water not as a “what” but as a “who.”

The River Speaks recognizes the personhood of rivers and other bodies of water, seeing them as holders of rights and living beings in relationship with others. Water is not passive or something to be pressed into human service. If a body of water is abused or has its rights violated, then it follows that there should be legal and political responses. This principle inspired the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, responding to its abuse by runoff from industrial agriculture.

Environmental personhood establishes two things: it grants legal standing and public recognition. A river with legal rights may access the courts as a plaintiff. A river that is a being counts as  a full person, “indivisible and whole,”who may not be arbitrarily divided in the name of property or exploitation.  

When recognized as a being, a river shares equal standing with humans. In other words, according to Gwendolyn Gordon, extending legal standing to nonhuman entities means that we no longer think of nature as merely a resource to be exploited for profit or to be managed for its beauty or sustainability in the name of conservation. Rather, personhood grants nature jurisdiction over itself and is no longer human-centered.

In Western thought, the personhood of water represents a new concept. It seems less radical, however, when viewed alongside the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United that defines private corporations as people with unfettered freedom of speech and political influence.

The River Speaks reframes how we think about water to foster a mutualistic, symbiotic relationship. Although the concept of environmental personhood raises many questions, nurturing an emotional connection to nature promotes a greater sense of care. Recognizing the river’s personhood confers collective stewardship of this shared life source.

The characters of the branches highlight the personalities and archetypes that emerge from the Chicago River. These archetypes represent the players involved with maintaining the status quo and those actively fighting for a more holistic, sustainable waterway. We developed the characters of each river branch based on its history, contemporary use and the communities that live alongside it. We focus on the human elements of the waterway system in our audio vignettes where the various branches of the river speak.

A digital storytelling project of the Freshwater Lab at the University of Illinois Chicago

The backward river in question is the Chicago, reversed at the dawn of the 20th century to serve industrial capitalism in a rising metropolis.

Before 1900, the winding Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan. Since 1900, the river has diverted Lake Michigan water into a canal that branches into the Des Plaines, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. Its outlet is the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, you read that correctly. The Chicago River or, more precisely, the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) punctures the continental divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

Compelling on its own, our story also dramatizes a widespread scenario of crumbling American infrastructure. At its heart rests a basic denial of malfunction, public harm and the disproportionate burdens placed on communities of color. In telling the story of The Backward River, we aim to cut through this denial and speak plainly.

Water Acknowledgement

The Chicago River flows through the traditional homelands of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi Nations. The Fox, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Miami and Sac tribes also call this region home. These communities have been targets of erasure by settler colonialism. The Backward River aims to highlight the histories, cultures and practices of Indigenous peoples who have a right to this land. Today, Chicago’s American Indian presence constitutes one of the country’s largest urban Indigenous communities.

The Backward River aims to address the disproportionate impacts of environmental degradation that burden Indigenous communities. The current uses of our local waters are borne of the violent logic of settler colonialism. We collaborate with Indigenous perspectives, which treat water as a vital artery in connecting trade, travel and family.

By making a water acknowledgement, we take a moment to thank the water for sustaining life and maintaining balance on Earth. We are grateful to the water for moistening the fields where our plants grow, for quenching our thirst, purifying our bodies and allowing us to travel by boat. In the form of springs, rivers, lakes and seas, the water is a mirror that reflects how we treat our environment. In the streams we hear the ancient song that preserves the memory of the beginning of life and our cosmic identity. Water also teaches us adaptability and fluidity, reminding us to mold to the circumstances and remain transparent, calm yet strong at the same time.

Indigenous communities have historically viewed the relationship between water and humans as one of kinship; today, members of this community continue to protect water as a source of healing and to highlight the symbolic power of water that teaches us how to understand history and ourselves.

Backward to the Future

The good news is that we are in the Great Lakes watershed that encompasses over 20% of the world’s freshwater. Due to our auspicious location and inheritance of stewardship, Great Lakes people have the chance to survive and thrive amidst accelerated climate change. The secret rests in honoring the water as a generous life giver whose existence we must also preserve.

Great Lakes history includes mass migrations and outpouring of labor power. More recently, the region has been known as the Rust Belt where industry sputtered before the challenge of innovation and segregation turned our cities into battlegrounds. Not even the great waters can dissolve legacies of pollution and trauma. They must be commemorated and healed as we face the future.  

Manifesting a blue future in the Great Lakes region requires imagination and adaptation. It also takes coordinated effort across urban, rural and suburban communities. Luckily, a love of the lakes is widely shared and the region has a long history of water-forward binational and bipartisan legislation. The outcomes of recent federal elections have pivoted on Great Lake states.

We can become the world’s Water Belt where genius infrastructure balances problems of flooding and drought as it supports economic growth and widespread stability. Waterfront Superfund sites can become corridors of clean industry and regeneration. The perfect place to begin the transformation is along America’s most engineered waterway: the backward Chicago River.  

In order for the Great Lakes watershed to become a climate change oasis, many fundamental systems need to be rebuilt. The overabundance of lead service lines must be traded out immediately. Water must be affordable and accessible for every resident and take priority over subsidizing private enterprise. Infrastructure of water treatment and distribution needs to make the most of every single drop. Vitally, money made from the local water supply must be reinvested in its preservation and advancement.

Like the oasis that it is, the watershed can support the arrival of people and development of new businesses and forms of production. Such trend reversing change from the Rust Belt to the Water Belt portends a stable future, but it cannot occur without some important upgrades.

The necessary upgrades are both technical and social. Because they impact all life in the watershed, the upgrades must be guided by ethics rather than profit motives. We propose three basic principles to guide the transformation: keep water public, keep water clean, and keep water here.

Immigrations Waves and Labor Power

The Chicago River was engineered at the beginning of the 20th Century to send northern industrial waste southward and to allow commodities to circulate.  It catalyzed Chicago’s growth into one of the nation’s largest cities and a center of international trade and commerce.

Native travelers knew how to portage through the marshland that would become Chicago and shared this knowledge with early explorers and settlers. To colonial eyes, the swampy link between the river and the lake seemed the perfect place for a permanent cut. So, in 1848, the Chicago River was expanded as the Illinois-Michigan (I&M) Canal. 19th century engineering quickly proved insufficient for the burgeoning metropolis. The I&M Canal worked with the railroad system to draw resources and people into Chicago where they were transformed into commodities and labor.

The historic occasion of building the Sanitary and Ship Canal enabled intense industrial development that attracted immigrants  from across the world seeking possibilities. With industrial waste pumped far away on the public’s dime, factories multiplied exponentially. Heavy manufacturing and stockyards lined the banks of the canal and the South Branch, transforming them into oozing waste pools. Stockyard engineers tore through wetlands around the South Branch and replaced them with a massive system that drained wastes from 325 acres of meatpacking factories into the now hard-edged river. In the famous muckraking book The Jungle, author Upton Sinclair named a fork of the river Bubbly Creek. He describes how “(b)ubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding.”

Eventually, neighborhoods along the South Branch and the Sanitary and Ship Canal became an entry point for working-class immigrants of different backgrounds, who flocked in and out of communities such as Pilsen, Back of the Yards, Lawndale and Little Village.  Although industrial expansion enabled settlement and economic growth, it was often unregulated, forcing immigrants to confront hazardous working conditions, low wages, long hours and polluted environments. In response, residents of these neighborhoods joined together in a vibrant Chicago labor movement, engaging in protests and strikes, even when met with violence.

Today, these neighborhoods are home to a majority working-class, Latine immigrant population and strong grassroot organizations addressing environmental and labor injustices. For example, Pilsen annually hosts the well-known Fiesta de Sol, a Latine cultural festival that celebrates social transformation through community connection and highlights local organizations, businesses and projects. Little Village, commonly known as La Villita, welcomes people with a gateway that reads “Bienvenidos a Little Village.” A two-mile stretch on La Villita’s 26th street gained its own nickname as the “second Magnificent Mile,” lined with local panaderias, eloteros, and tamaleros, colorful restaurants and murals, and the Discount Mall that resembles un tianguis, a Mexican market.

Over time, industry shifted from meatpacking to coal-fired power plants and heavy manufacturing to the warehouses and logistics of today. With its need for labor power, industry is often attracted to neighborhoods with a high number of immigrants, and many new immigrants seek to live where employment is readily available. Despite the changing nature of industry, exploitation of the immigrant workforce persists. This continued pattern is repeatedly met with the strength and imagination of an ongoing Chicago labor movement.

Yana Kalmyka, formerly with Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), speaking in spring 2022 about how the history of warehousing and goods movement parallels the Chicago River and how power can be leveraged across the labor and environmental movements.

Transcript of recording

I’m really excited to have this conversation about the river because actually, the history of warehousing and goods movement in general has such a long history with the Chicago River in particular. In the mid 1800s, when the Illinois and Michigan Canal were built, they used the Chicago River to connect the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes for the first time, which really changed the way that goods movement and development happens in the city and probably in the world. And we saw instead of three weeks to get from one end to the other, it started taking a day, and that really changed everything. The entire locus of goods movement in the United States moved from St. Louis to Chicago when that happened. So by 1870, Chicago was the busiest port in the United States. There are more ships at the City’s harbor than New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia combined. And in that process, the first modern distribution center, like a really big warehouse was created, which is pretty much exactly where the Freshwater Lab Festival took place, pretty much exactly where we were sitting at the Backward River Festival. And also in the 1850s, the US was in the middle of this really rapid railroad expansion. And as soon as the canal opened, construction started on Chicago’s first railway. And so today we see that there’s over 25 intermodal railyards throughout Chicago, all located on the south and west sides. And Chicago remains this really vital foothold in the warehouse industry. 

And this is really where Warehouse Workers for Justice was born. So Will County, or the Chicago land area kind of broadly, is the only place for six major railroads meet out of seven in the United States. It’s also where a lot of major highways are intersecting. And the Chicago land area is a day’s trip from about 60% of the continent. And so that makes Will County home to the nation’s largest inland port, which is CenterPoint. And it’s between Joliet and Elwood, where our office is and it’s just really interesting because the river is such a huge part of this expansion and of the existence of the concept of warehousing as a whole. But I also bring up the fact that the largest inland port in North America is in the Chicago land area to talk about the fact that we have a lot of power in this region uniquely. And so Warehouse Workers for Justice was founded in 2007 because folks at a union, the United Electrical Workers, were interested in finding ways to creatively organize workers who have trouble for one reason or another, organizing themselves. And in case of warehousing, the prolific presence of third party logistics companies, temp agencies, etc makes it really hard to organize. And so union folks really came together and said, well, what industry needs organizing and also how do we do it creatively and also where do we have power, right? And after doing a power analysis, they really found out that the warehousing industry has to be where we’re at right now and it can’t move. And so this figure about this place being a day’s trip from 60% of the continent becomes really important because you think about Amazon delivering next day, two-day, even same day I’ve been seeing that they deliver like the night of your order, which is absolutely nuts. But all that to say, we have such an incredible amount of power here because this is such a vital region to make that kind of quick delivery model possible. And so when we think about the potential of environmental organizing and labor organizing in this region, it seems like we can really have ripple effects throughout the country because if we can organize here, the companies can’t move, right? And that’s kind of the central concept of our organization.

Warehouses on the River

Industrial corridors (ICs) are often described as specific areas designated for manufacturing that are located near transportation such as waterways, highways or rail lines. Boosters laud the industrial corridor system as essential to the region’s economy and advocate for protecting industrial land uses. But, for communities living in and around ICs, the zoning and pollution allowances compromise water, air and soil, which can lead to impaired public and mental health. Of late, large warehouses and trucking hubs have taken advantage of industrial corridor zoning.

Warehouse Workers for Justice estimates that there are about 150,000 warehouse workersin the Chicago region. Most warehouse jobs fall into the category of precarious employment meaning that workers do not have a say in scheduling, pay, benefits, workplace safety and job security. Warehouse workers bear the burdens of long hours, high risk of occupational injuries, dangerous working conditions and nowhere to file grievances. Think about the scale of these impacts through the Warehouse Workers for Justice statistic that “Chicago has half a billion square feet of warehouse space, making it one of the largest concentrations of warehouses on the planet.”

Two former Amazon workers speaking in spring 2022 about how they worked at Amazon are set up for an impossible and incredibly strenuous job, and how little the corporation cares about its employees.

Transcript of recording

They really ask like an impossible task of you, and they try to brainwash you to think it’s possible by having try-hard people promote all the items that they can stow in a day, which aren’t really real, but yeah, it’s just all around like a really stressful environment. And they don’t give you enough time to recover and recoup between three hour shifts, they give you 30 minutes. And as she mentioned, it takes ten minutes to walk anywhere in Amazon from anywhere you are at, no matter where you are, it takes ten minutes to walk to where you need to be. So it’s just hard to try and hustle when your legs are sore from standing for 6 hours straight. And then you’re also tired because your arms and shoulders hurt from stowing things that are way above your head. 

I have family members who- I don’t know anybody that works at Amazon, honestly, beyond me and you, but I have family members who’ve made entire lives off working warehouses, warehouse, blue collar work, basically. Well, my one cousin was very vocal from the jump. She’s worked at Ford since 2012. And she was like, that job hurts. My fingers hurt. My body hurts. Like, the job is hard. And I was just like, I just feel like maybe you’re overdoing it. Literally. How old was I in 2012? My 14 year old brain, I was like, yeah, she doesn’t know what it’s like. So I haven’t thought again about warehouse jobs until I walked into Amazon for my first day. And I was like, oh, okay, this is awful. This is what everybody’s talking about. This is why people are so anti-Amazon. Because I didn’t understand why people were anti-Amazon exactly. I’m like, it’s a corporation, so there’s blood and there’s death all around it. So I’m like, I don’t know why this one is so specifically being attacked, but I think now it’s because of how, since the corporation is - the needs are so high for that specific corporation, like anyone, but specifically Amazon, they whip you more, so you get more lashings if, you know, so it’s more aggressive in that way, for sure. So I wasn’t expecting it to be an impossible job. I was expecting there to be a way for you to get through the day with all you could do, like preparing in the morning and stretching all this. That the work could be doable, and it’s not. Not in any reasonable sense of getting work done in a day’s span. No, you can’t do it, but you have to try. So you do.

Long story short, the question was, what do people not understand about working at Amazon? It’s just really like you don’t understand how little they care about their employees. I think you can talk about it all day long, but actually being an employee there and realizing they don’t care that I get the correct pay, they don’t care that I get all my time off, they don’t care about any of that. They care that I send out 1200 items in a day. That’s all they care about. It’s sad. It’s sad and it’s really frustrating at the same time. And those are like really bad emotions to have towards the job that you’re trying to do. And especially when you have all these requirements you want to meet, when you don’t want to meet them because you don’t like your employer. That’s what I think.

Two Amazon workers speaking in spring 2022 about why they work at Amazon despite how physically demanding and depressing it is.

Transcript of recording

Okay, so basically it makes me feel like you never finish anything because once you finish all of your work, they just bring you new work. So it’s not like, oh, okay, so like, today, okay, once I finish this, then I’ll be done with work for the day, and then I can move on to something else, like a normal job. When you have different kinds of projects, it’s just like constant - they’re bringing in boxes, they’re bringing in boxes, they’re bringing in boxes. There’s never, like, a sense of accomplishment, I feel like. And that also makes it really hard to stay motivated because it’s like, oh, once I finish these 97 items, they’re in this big ass box. I’ll be cool. No, they’re going to bring you 97 more items each time. Like, there’s nothing you can do to finish your work until you leave and clock out. That’s fucking depressing. 

Okay, so I make $20 an hour on Amazon. And that’s like well, it’s like about $4 more than I’d make as a gallery assistant, like, in the real world, which is like a job in the career path of what I actually studied to do with my life. So it’s like when you compare the monetary, literally just the monetary, because Amazon is Amazon, you get your check, you can apply for benefits and stuff, but you have to commit so much more of your soul to get those things. And I’m like, girl, please. But if I were to work at a gallery and they would give me benefits and time off, and then they’d be like, less physically demanding work, and more satisfying for my soul to be there. So, like, the $4 cut wouldn’t be that bad there bad or like, you think it would be that bad. It’s like they do it like that so that you are forced to really be like, damn, it’s still like $20. I’m still young, and $20 is a lot. Like, I’m not used. But it’s like when you get there, you stand there for an hour and you’re like, was that really worth $20? I immediately want to go home, and I don’t care about the money anymore. I’ll quit. When you got a car note and the rent and utilities to pay, it’s a good wage. You have to do it. Yes. 

That’s kind of where I’m at right now. I am starting off. I’m fresh out of college, so I don’t have any, like, saved money or assets. I have to start everything from scratch. So as I’m trying to build and save with that, I have to work some weekends at Amazon in addition to my full time job. I wouldn’t work at Amazon if I didn’t have to. I don’t like working there, and I just want to stay and work a couple of days a month. It’s not like that. It’s literally I have to in order to live the lifestyle that I want to live. So it’s okay for that. But if I had to work at Amazon four days as my full time career or anything like that, I don’t think $16.50 would be sufficient. 

Exactly. Yeah. And I feel like that’s really what this question is about. It’s not for people, like, you and me, we just work there because what else is there? We’re not trying to support kids and pay mortgages and shit. So it’s really great for us in that regard because having actually actualized Amazon as a career for myself, it would be really tough. It’s like, this is it for the next 30 years, is what I’m going to do. Like, watch my body fade away for fucking $20 an hour and nothing else. Like, as a full grown adult, all you have is, all you get is money. That’s not enough. There’s no satisfaction, like, psychologically, there’s no benefits, there’s no dental, there’s no, like, everything you want to come out, like, you got to pay for it all. There’s no seeing your work do anything in the end. Yeah. You don’t see somebody getting their package of socks and joy on their face when it happens or anything. There’s no fulfillment after you stow that item. There’s no fulfillment at the fulfillment center. Hashtag.

Edith Tovar, Senior Just Transition Organizer with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), speaking in spring 2022 about the intersection of environmental justice, labor and public health in Little Village and its industrial corridor.

Transcript of recording

Within the industrial corridors, like we realized, because of how big they are, because of the importance that they have carried where we don’t minimize the importance of having local jobs, the importance of having a closed economy within our community. A lot of these jobs were beneficial to a lot of working class families in establishing roots and being able to purchase their homes, being able to raise their families, right? But within the passing decades, what do we know? We know that our community has one of the largest asthma rates. We know that when the Crawford coal plant was operating within the industrial corridor, we know that every year we lost about 50 residents to premature deaths. We know that cardiac disease is rampant in our communities. Why? Because close to 50% of our land use is dedicated to industry. So these are like the type of connections that LVEJO really tries to make- where industry and corporate polluters do such a great job at green washing and selling the idea of jobs and the creation of thousands of jobs in the industrial corridor. Again, we love jobs. We want our community to be able to have access to thriving, living wages, right? We don’t want extractive working conditions for a community that is already struggling with like all the other -isms, right? And so trying to make that connection within environmental justice and labor and public health is one of these three layers. I think now we’re working with it and our community is picking up on the language and saying - challenging a lot of these narratives that corporations are trying to sell to us, right? That is because we’re going to install solar panels, like everything is going to be great. Don’t mind the 400 plus trucks that we’re going to be coming in and out of this warehouse, right, on a daily basis. At least now folks are questioning like, whoa, why are there so many trucks to begin with? And are these jobs, are these union jobs or what’s the starting minimum wage? Are these salary jobs? What kind of benefits are you going to include? Tuition waivers? And so these are the questions that we are supporting residents and asking and teaching them how to negotiate, or how not to negotiate, but teaching them about knowing their own work rights. And again, we want industry, we believe that industry can be great. But the type of industry that is not extractive. The type of industry that will not literally put our health at risk just so that we can have a decent job, we want to make sure that these jobs are like - benefiting our communities. We just don’t want a company that shows up and just ignores everything that’s happening outside of their industry walls, right? We want active participants of our community.

Sewer’s Revenge

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. At these moments, the sewers exact their revenge by resurfacing what goes down the drain.

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 a short period of time—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.

During a serious rain event, the very waters intended to be sent far away from Chicago are spit up into the river through a second set of pipes called outflow pipes that pour untreated water from the combined sewers back into the river. This is called a combined sewer overflow (CSO).

In 2019, more than 50 CSOs were recorded. According to 2017 research, an average of 318 million gallons of water poured into the Chicago River during and after rain events. The failures of the combined sewer system and other water infrastructure are not uniformly experienced. Instead, low-income communities on the South and West Sides of Chicago experience the most and the worst flooding. Between 2007 and 2016, flood damage insurance payments totaled more than $400 million, where 87% were paid to residents in communities of color.

The lock between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River is meant to draw lakewater into the Chicago Area Waterway System. But, when it opens, it can spew waste into the lake –the drinking water source for millions of people. This recurring public health hazard represents exactly the opposite of what the Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Deep Tunnel were intended to do. Swollen by outfall pipes, the backward river returns to its original course. In this way, the sewers exact their revenge.

Billions for Barges

Canals and barges seem like antiquated relics of the 19th century, but they persist 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 is largely an offshoot of the fossil fuel industry.  It loads moribund commodities like coal too toxic to legally burn in North America onto flat boats and moves them along our rivers. It is an industry in swift decline. We subsidize the movement of materials that cause harm by keeping the canal open and thereby facilitate the burning of carbon that only contributes to increased precipitation, warming waters and flooding.  

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 in a downward spiral. In the maze of commodity transfer that occurs throughout the Greater Chicago region, barges ferry only 0.3 percent of the total goods. However, the expense for maintaining the industry has grown to $1.7 billion, 98% of which is subsidized by the public.

Many of the heaviest, dirtiest carbon products pushed down the canal enrich mammoth enterprises like Koch Industries that moves toxic Pet Coke (a tar sands byproudct) across the globe.  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.

While the number of jobs supported by the barge industry is negligible, the harm done to communities along the canals is well documented.

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.

The Deep Tunnel

Chicago’s Deep Tunnel is the world’s biggest water storage system. Despite its mammoth scale, the Deep Tunnel keeps wastewater out of civic eyesight. Few people know how much water circulates beneath the city or settles in repurposed quarries.

The City of 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, a dangerous brew of sewage 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 Deep Tunnel first dug in 1974 will reach completion.  With this final reservoir, TARP is projected to hold 17.45 billion gallons of water and to bring $693 million in flood reduction benefits to 54 communities. Today, it holds 10.95 billion gallons of water. This is enough water to fill Soldier Field 4,800 times or the Willis Tower 27 times.

The Deep Tunnel keeps the city from inundation and captures billions of gallons of water. It answered a federal mandate to protect drinking water, reduce floods and backups, and improve the quality of Illinois waterways. However, the Deep Tunnel/TARP was designed in 1960 based on 1940 rainfall records. Its capacity already fell short when it was constructed. 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.

Precipitation in the Midwest has increased by 9% since 1991, the most of any region in the U.S. 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 erode Midwest landscapes.

Rain storms have given way to 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 contents of combined sewers move south even during town-leveling floods along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

On the upside, the Deep Tunnel has eliminated 85% of combined sewer overflows (CSOs). But what about the other 15%? Even with the Deep Tunnel, the Chicago Tribune reported increased dumping of wastewater into rivers and the lake. A system still under construction can release untreated human and industrial waste blended with runoff filled with bacteria, toxins, chemicals and debris.

If the Chicago River works like a pipeline, then the Deep Tunnel resembles the oil fields that feed it.  Wastewater 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. But it has the potential to bring great value to the public and to the future.

The Dead Zone

Increasingly, life giving water contains zones of death where nothing can live. Societal decisions about food production, landscaping and waste determine whether our water is vital or deadly.

Flowing beyond Chicago, the Sanitary and Ship Canal feeds 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 byproducts and agricultural runoff meets its end in the watery grave of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone, also known as the Dead Zone, which has reached the size of New Jersey.

Aquatic life depends on dissolved oxygen. A dead zone is what it sounds like: an aquatic area devoid of oxygen where nothing can live.

Ironically, the source of a dead zone is nitrogen and phosphorus, the building blocks of life. But an excess of these nutrients leads to the opposite of life. When an overload of nitrogen and phosphorus pours into bodies of water, it spikes the growth of blue-green algae, naturally occurring microorganisms. In and of itself, blue-green algae don’t pose a major problem. However, when fueled by large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, the algae bloom and overtake the water. As they decompose, the algae suck up the small amount of oxygen in water, preventing other plants and animals from surviving. The decomposition can release toxins that are deadly upon consumption or, sometimes, even touch.

Corporate farming accelerates the problem because it 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 their expanding American fields. Heavy rains brought about by climate change easily strip the fertilizer and wash it into streams and rivers.  

When it comes to animal agriculture, Combined Area Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where meat and dairy products are produced by concentrating the highest number of animals in the smallest area, are on the rise. In order to keep yields high, these animals are often pumped with antibiotics and steroids. Furthermore, untreated animal urine and feces run into rivers and lakes, contaminating drinking water and contributing to harmful algae blooms.

Obviously, we need food to live. But the corporate agricultural practices imposed on our lands are killing our waters. Neither we nor aquatic life will survive if they persist.

The Carp Checkpoint

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.

Few American rivers have been left untouched by the drive for shipping channels and sewage canals. To move along a storied river like the Mississippi is to navigate a path cut for commodities with pumps, locks and straightened bends. This is certainly the case at the lock where the reversed Chicago slurps from Lake Michigan, at the pumping stations that push sewage south and at ship elevators connected to the canal system.

Fusion of watersheds as grand as the Great Lakes and Mississippi River allows for all kinds of natural and cultural mixtures. Part of the mix comes from living travelers on ships from far-flung ports that disembark and find success in a new place. If the species in question outcompetes its predecessors, then it becomes classified as an invasive species.

The most formidable invasive species are four kinds of carp. Their movement has brought Great Lake states as close as they have ever come to plugging the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Unlike other new arrivals, the carp reached the United States through the mail rather than on barges, ordered from Malaysia to clear pond scum in Arkansas. This attractive asset ultimately proved their greatest liability.

Two of the four carp –Bighead and Silver–take a vacuum cleaner approach to nutrition, inhaling all of the plankton that they can. Plankton rests at the base of the aquatic food chain. In its absence, smaller species go hungry and starve out bigger ones like fish beloved by humans. It wasn’t their ravenousness that seized public attention but their ability to leap from the water when frightened by motorboats, sometimes whacking boaters on the head.

 As a result, the invader term really stuck and wanted signs targeting carp established total opposition. Dubbing them Asian Carp infused the standoff with long-held Rust Belt resentments about Japanese cars and Chinese manufacture blamed for erasing blue collar jobs. With an enemy framed in America’s crosshairs, it wasn’t long before the military stepped up.

As a wing of the armed forces, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) thinks in terms of elimination and deterrence. It has experimented with mass carp poisoning but ultimately prefers walls in water aimed at keeping them out of the Great Lakes. USACE’s solution costs hundreds of millions of public dollars, contains inevitable design flaws and keeps us lodged in a faltering 19th century system. USACE intends to expand a deterrence complex in the Mississippi-bound Des Plaines River that resembles a checkpoint for carp. Just as military checkpoints look to keep certain people out but let others through, so the carp checkpoint aims to repel fish and propel barges. Just as military checkpoints have increased surveillance and detention technologies, so USACE looks to do for carp.

In 2002, USACE debuted a demonstration electric barrier in the Sanitary and Ship Canal, which was upgraded in 2008. Barriers IIA and IIB came online in 2009 and 2011. They work by emitting a field of electrodes across the breadth and depth of the canal that carp cannot pass. It is said that, due to their potent charge, crew on any passing barges must enter the cabin to avoid any negative effects on humans.

The basin-bridging fish inspired bipartisan action among Great Lakes members of Congress who demanded federal funding for an elaborate carp deterrent complex at a Des Plaines River junction known as Brandon Road. For a total cost of around $858 million, the carp checkpoint will increase the redundancy of current barriers by adding another along with an acoustic fish deterrent blasting sounds intolerable to carp and a bubble curtain that “removes small and stunned fish entrained in spaces between barges.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Law extends $226 million for the completion of Pre-Construction Engineering and Design and the initiation of construction for the Brandon Road Lock and Dam Aquatic Nuisance Species Barrier Project on the Des Plaines River.  Additional federal funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and millions from the States of Michigan and Illinois back up the impressive starting sum. Some, if not all, of the carp checkpoint will be established on the Des Plaines River.

Why a Pipeline?

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

We think of rivers coursing in a natural path, whereas 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 other products. 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. During a rainstorm, the river can also overflow with sewage.

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.

The Chicago River does not act alone. When we consider how canals fit the definition of pipelines, Illinois waterways can 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.

Not a Marvel

The dawn of the twentieth century brought the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal into being.

Nineteenth 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 source of drinking water. Outbreaks of water-borne diseases like cholera required a public health response. They did not prompt changes in industrial scale or practices, but rather more audacious engineering.

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, a lazy river meandered toward Lake Michigan. Thereafter, a canal created a transcontinental toilet from Chicago to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

Since 1900 the engineered river originates from Lake Michigan, runs straight like a pipe 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.

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 foul channels cut into neighborhoods on Chicago’s west side and pool the toxins from industrial corridors.

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 with lax standards for safety and sustainability. As such, the Calumet River has long served as the Calumet-Saganashkee (Cal-Sag) Channel that supplies industry with its base materials and loads its commodities.

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

South Branch

Flows through a number of culturally rich neighborhoods then assumes the identity of the Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Despite visible litter, a young boy plays with the water from the South Branch that leads into Bubbly Creek on a hot, sunny day, August 2020. (Photo: Citlalli Trujillo)

As readers of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle know, a century of meatpacking and heavy industrial pollution gave rise to the infamously-contaminated Bubbly Creek. The name derives from the methane bubbles that popped as organic matter decayed in the water. This damage persists and mixes with ongoing pollution from industrial corridors along the South Branch. The river and many communities along it have become contested spaces in recent decades, as luxury developments extend south, pushing and pricing out communities of color through gentrification. Now, whiter, wealthier neighborhoods boast the opportunity to jog on river paths or sip microbrews on overlooks whereas African-American and Latine neighborhoods contend with the fumes of asphalt mixing, the grind of metal shredding and lagoons of industrial waste.

Character of the South Branch

The South Branch speaks as  a youth activist and protest organizer who understands how the institutional structures of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy harm marginalized communities. They understand the systems at play and how the status quo leaves their people behind. They’re a well-spoken young person who grasps the operations of late capitalism and wants to upend the system. Imagine the person who gives the sound byte when a local news camera sticks a mic in their face and asks them why they’re protesting.

One of Israel’s most devastating consequences through its occupation of Palestinian land is the impact of Israel’s discriminatory policies on Palestinians’ access to adequate supplies of clean and safe water. The United States engages in similar theft of our planet’s most valuable resources– water–from Indigenous communities. The United States can’t provide its own citizens with clean water, but can send Israel $10 million a day to ensure they continue stealing clean water from Palestinians indigenous to our land. As a Palestinian, I demand and fight for the right to access clean water, freely, just as all other oppressed nationalities deserve to access clean, free water. From the Lakota Nation to Flint, Michigan, to our Black and brown communities in Chicago.

Samer Owaida

Transcript of recording

For too long they have silenced us. For too long they have suffocated us with toxic air. Our babies choke on every breath. For too long they have poisoned us with tainted water that we are forced to pay for. And if you can’t afford it, you are denied a human right altogether. I am surrounded by the victims of incremental violence. My people continue to experience this deliberate attack on our humanity through disinvestment resulting in closed schools, food deserts and even a lack of parks. Quite frankly, it’s not incremental violence at all! From the barrel of a CPD gun, to the putrid air that we are forced to breath. They’re all weapons designed to hurt and kill us. This is a different kind of genocide.

I am here to enact change. We are here to manifest that change. We’re not going to continue to be a dumping ground for this city, and its hate for us. The North Branch is being forced to conform to a new status quo thanks to gentrification. They’re transforming their industrial corridors into corporate playgrounds. Why? Because a bunch of middle class white kids moved in, and just pushed out all the black and brown folks already living there. On top of that, the companies that already polluted up north are moving here, down south, to dump their waste on us, as if we’re some kind of landfill. They think it’s okay because we’re not rich and we’re not white. Well, you know what? We’re here to say, we’ve had enough. We’re here to say, we won’t  tolerate this. And we’re here to say, they can’t do this anymore. Do they think we don’t know our own value? They say we could look more beautiful. Pfff. Yeah, for more tourists. Well, we say, our value exists outside a corporate model. We won’t let them pollute us. And we won’t stop fighting. They’re going to learn that they can’t just do this and get away with it. We say, collective imagination OVER capital domination. We’re not asking for clean and free water any more. We’re demanding it, by any means necessary.

Escucha en español

  • Written by Tristen Ortiz
  • Produced by Anish Tailor
  • Performed in English by Samer Owaida
  • Story by Tristen Ortiz and Anish Tailor

Sanitary & Ship Canal

Opening with a blast of dynamite on the eve of 1900, the canal redirected the Chicago River south, offshoring the city’s waste for the benefit of an expanding metropolis.

The Sanitary & Ship Canal fuses the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin. It is often considered an engineering marvel, enjoying its status as an emblem of the modernized world. We aren’t supposed to see the canal’s failures. Instead, private industries transferring freight on barges direct us to continue marveling at engineered solutions even as the canal bloats with pollution and its infrastructure crumbles.

Character of the Sanitary and Ship Canal

The Sanitary and Ship Canal is portrayed as a rapacious capitalist who will stop at nothing to make money. Such hubris propelled city leaders to undertake this engineering project. They didn’t consider the environmental impacts of artificially breaching the continental divide that separates the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River watershed. They also didn’t consider pollution impacts upon marginalized communities who live near the canal. They were only motivated by a voracious appetite for capital.

From the actor

This project was enticing to me first and foremost because I think it’s a really smart idea! Utilizing narrative monologues delivered through vocal performance to help people learn about the Chicago Area Waterway System is a concept I can definitely get behind. Secondly, I’ve been wanting to do more voiceover work and this was an amazing way to help sharpen my skills, especially since it allowed me to take on a colorful character. It was a lot of fun and I’m thankful for the opportunity!

Ross Compton

Transcript of recording

I am the Sanitary and Ship Canal. My name ends in “canal” because I just so happen to come from a great lineage of canals. Humble beginnings such as the canals of Amsterdam and Venice to the magnificent marvel that is the Panama Canal.

You could say I aspired to be like them. As you have seen, I have blazed my own trail to transform Chicago from swamp prairie into a boomtown. I make Chicago matter. Not the main stem, not the north branch, and especially not the south branch– the most ungrateful branch of this city. They spout off about my existence as one of irreparable harm as if I have tainted this city with greed and gluttony. That I’m allowed to be a massive public health risk and affect the neighborhoods around me. I say they’re often hyperbolic. Now, I do recognize my work and my position in this river is… intimidating and difficult to embrace. I see you and I hear you. But I must say,  if the south branch chose to embrace their numerous industrial corridors they would realize how important they were instead of going on about human rights violations.

If only the  branches understood their worth. That’s the problem with a lot of the branches–except main stem. Though he may be a milksop, he gets the job done. Presenting the city as pretty and posh. Unlike the stem I have to get my hands dirty to ensure this city runs. You see, I do my own sewage. The ships that sail on me are ships I know. I make it my business to see that every ship and turd flows through me to the Des Plaines. I do not botch my reversal flow as I merge with my business partner, the Calumet-Saganashkee (Cal-Sag) Channel. What I am trying to say is I’m fixed like no other branch or channel in this river. I get my hands dirty to make sure this city is held up by my oil drenched hands even if it means picking off a couple of undesirables. I may be capitalist but I’m a staunch believer in Utilitarianism.

Escucha en español

  • Written by Tristen Ortiz
  • Produced by Anish Tailor
  • Performed by Ross Compton
  • Story by Tristen Ortiz and Anish Tailor

Main Stem

The glistening jewel of the Chicago Area Waterway System.

Main Stem of Chicago River

Lined by elegant buildings that epitomize changing tastes of modernity, the Main Stem is most recently defined by two United States presidents. Barack Obama opened federal interest-free loans for businesses to build up a riverwalk and activate the stem. Before the outbreak of pandemic, Chicago Riverwalk businesses had already paid off their loans and begun to contribute revenue to the city. Opposite stands the overleveraged Trump Tower with gaping vacancies, unpaid taxes and 20 million gallons of pollution per day poured into Main Stem waters.

Character of the Main Stem

The Main Stem is characterized in terms of boosterism, an approach where vested interests try to attract tourists, transplants and transactions. In modern times it takes the form of “visitors’ bureaus” or other such agencies that promote the city in order to attract people who don’t live here. Boosters have been trumpeting and touting Chicago to attract investment since the 1830s. Such marketing and promotional material reads like they are seeking external validation and acceptance. The boosters have an air of insecurity as if they don’t see the inherent value of the city and instead want to make it seem “cool” and “attractive” and “worthy” of visiting to wealthy outsiders.

From the actor

Upon hearing about this ambitious project to inject life into the Chicago River branches, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to lend my voice to help bring this river to life. Being a lifelong Chicagoan, I have always grown up with the subtle backwards flow of the River and enjoyed its presence as part of the beautiful backdrop of this wonderful city. Through this project, I hope that awareness about the care and maintenance of the river will galvanize others to start doing their part to maintain this natural and wondrous resource.

Derek S. Nelson

Transcript of recording

Let me tell you I have the best freaking job in the world! I wake up every morning to a Lake Michigan sunrise. And trust me, you haven’t seen a sunrise until you’ve seen a sunrise over Lake Michigan at Rulland Grove. How else do you think I won so much investment mmm?? Those sunsets never get old just like my job. I want you to brace yourself when I tell you what I do. People from around the world have to see my job performed. Are you braced yet? Ok…. I. RUN. BACKWARDS! Yeah! Tell me what other river does that. Tell me I’ll wait. [pause 2 sec]. Oh wait there isn’t another one. Nobody does that. How many people you know can resist the appeal of that? Not Many.

You see that tower right there? Oh wait you can’t see me pointing. Just more incentive to come on down to see me. You can lounge on my river bank and enjoy that freshwater smell. Not feeling too lazy? Excellent! Go for a jog! You hungry? Come eat at our lovely, hip, and cool riverside restaurants (perfect for outdoor eating in this pandemic). Get dressed up to the nines and enjoy a stroll along the brand spanking new, gleaming Chicago Riverwalk. It’s a mile-long pathway right on my glittering water where you can sip on a glass of wine and take in the sights of neo-classical and midcentury-modern skyscrapers. My only question is why aren’t you here already!? Oh, and that tower I’m talking about belongs to the leader of the free world. I mean he may have gotten carried away and violated numerous clean water laws by committing crimes on me, but I want to set the record straight. I forgive them. I have pardoned them already. I know they didn’t mean it. I know they care about me. That’s why Trump decided to build his tower over here. Why else??

You know, It’s so crazy to look back at what I used to be. I was just another basic, small, meek river flowing into the lake. I was all prairies back then…beautiful prairies. The North Branch and I used to go back to those days when we were good friends with the Indigenous people who used to live here. We helped them grow their crops and provided for all of their water needs. They took care of us. But uhhh…  BUT that’s boring. Look at me now. All this progress! You see all this beautiful architecture that lines my banks. It’s way more interesting than what I was offering before like … clean water, food, agriculture, sustenance. Sorry, didn’t mean to ramble.

You know the North Branch said I sold out. That I gave in easily to the prospect of fame and recognition. They were just hating. People love me from all over the world see me yet they leave. They gasp and gawk at the buildings on my banks but that’s not me. I’ve begun to wonder if the North Branch was right. Maybe I forgot what it means to be a part of the river. Maybe I’m not even a river anymore.

Escucha en español

  • Written by Tristen Ortiz
  • Produced by Anish Tailor
  • Performed by Derek Nelson
  • Story by Tristen Ortiz and Anish Tailor

North Branch

Aspirations of luxury blend with commercial utility along the North Branch.

North Branch of Chicago River

Curving from the downtown junction at Wolf Point, this branch hosts glassy condominiums and exclusive clubs on its banks. Soon enough, tire shops, bus lots and concrete factories appear alongside urban amenities. The North Branch’s Goose Island remembers eras of heavy industry in its polluted soils even as Lincoln Yards, a publicly-funded playground for the privileged, sprouts from them. Upstream at Lathrop Homes, the Related Corporation has reduced available public housing by rehabbing brick buildings as affordable, as well as upmarket units. Quoted in the Chicago Reader, longtime Lathrop Homes resident J.L. Gross describes his community as eviscerated by structures like a boathouse designed “for white people.” In its upper reaches, the North Branch opens into leafy parks and private docks offering homeowners an urban oasis. That is, until combined sewers overflow into the river.

Character of the North Branch

The North Branch represents a member of the old guard who has been in the neighborhood for decades and has stayed put through gentrification. They are an elder shopkeeper who was a fixture in the community in the “before times.” Their shop was a focal point and served as a de facto community center for many families in the area. People would leave a spare key to their apartment with them for safekeeping in case one of the kids got locked out or a visitor was arriving during their work shift.

They watched their neighborhood transform as developers bought up parcels of land around their shop. But they refused to sell and just hung on while their community was priced out without any control or say in the matter. All their old neighbors are gone and they are working through a sense of loss. Sometimes, their old customers come back to the shop just to visit them and say hi. They look down on the new customers because they do not understand the history or value of what came before them.

From the actress

I absolutely adore this project and how it personifies the river as a theatrical character! It truly makes it easier for all to understand the inequitable treatment and use of the river based on who lives and what exists around it. I’m deeply honored to be part of such a creative, engaging way to educate the general public about Great Lakes water issues.

Tonika Johnson

Transcript of recording

Look at that! A sweet old couple just closed their corner store down the block. You know they spent a few decades running the store and raising their kids. It WOULD be sad to see their establishment go but no one who went to their store lives here anymore. No one left to say they’ll miss it. Pushed out by rising property taxes caused by gentrification. Like bad acne, a ton of white heads have been gradually popping into the neighborhoods around me. But, the North Shore Channel tells me to be happy with all this. They said this is just what I need to turn myself around to be more welcoming and open. But who am I welcoming and open to??!? All my friends can’t afford to live here anymore, and it’s just a bunch of white people now. 

The city had plenty of opportunities to renovate when communities of color were still here, before they were priced out of their homes. One of the biggest changes that I’m going through is General Iron’s relocation. They’ve been on my branch for a long time. I’ve been here longer though. Their plant is one of the few Industrial Corridors I still have left and I’m happy to see it go. They consistently violated environmental laws as their pollution metastasized in me. 

Now I’m finally getting this tumor removed. Well I wish it was actually getting removed. Instead it’s relocating to The Calumet. They found another river to victimize. But just like the South Branch, they have enough industrial corridors already, and plants that suffocate and poison the neighborhood around them. The city knows this too, but ignores these neighborhoods because they’re not full of white people. 

As the influx of modern colonizers increases, my appearance changes for the better, according to the entitled new residents who have taken the place of those who were here before. The amenities that get added to me aren’t for the people who’ve been here for years, or for me, for that matter. All it does is draw in wealth, not community. Oh great, looks like I’m getting another bar with a craft brewery inside. Pack it up Goose Island.

Escucha en español

  • Written by Tristen Ortiz
  • Produced by Anish Tailor
  • Performed by Tonika Johnson
  • Story by Tristen Ortiz and Anish Tailor

North Shore Channel

There are no concentrated industrial corridors along this branch.

North Shore Channel

This branch of the Chicago River is lined with green spaces. It boasts a trail that runs along most of its length, encouraging movement up to the North Shore suburb of Wilmette and back. At once, the channel carries highly-treated wastewater from the North Shore suburbs down through Chicago. Although it seems that this branch is serene, green and clean, there is more to the story. You only have to move away from the banks, into the surrounding communities, and beneath the pavement to find out. In Chicago, single family homes and two-flats built before 1986 are most likely to be connected to a lead service line, which are in high concentration along this channel.

Character of the North Shore Channel

The North Shore Channel personifies the white person who doesn’t understand the concept of privilege. They are someone who doesn’t see the systems at play that allow them to have a clean river to use for recreation and wellbeing, while the people living on that very same river 15 miles south don’t get the same chance. They represent the “liberal racist” archetype, those who might advocate for Black Lives Matter, but would cause a stir if a Black person moved into their neighborhood. They are the type of “ally” who, when confronted with problematic behavior, will make it about themselves instead of listening to the harm that was caused, being humble and taking responsibility.

From the actress

The North Shore Channel personifies the white person who doesn’t understand the concept of privilege. They are someone who doesn’t see the systems at play that allow them to have a clean river to use for recreation and wellbeing, while the people living on that very same river 15 miles south don’t get the same chance. They represent the “liberal racist” archetype, those who might advocate for Black Lives Matter, but would cause a stir if a Black person moves into their neighborhood. They are the type of “ally” who when confronted with problematic behavior will make it about themselves instead of listening to the harm that was caused, being humble, and taking accountability.

Sarah Rachel Schol

Transcript of recording

Hey guys it’s me, the North Shore Channel here. You can call me channel but pronounced like Chanel. I was expensive! [laugh] All jokes aside, I’m a beautiful addition to the Chicago River and I help manage waste water from the northern burbs. So I put up with a lot of crap [laugh]! Even though I manage waste water down south to the, uh, city I think. I don’t really know or care where I bring it as long as it’s out of here. I, obviously, don’t brag about moving crap along like the Sanitary and Ship canal. That guy takes way too much pride in his work to say the least. Which I can get behind a little bit because I also take pride in what I do too.  

So, enough about that crap [laugh]. My puns just keep getting better. I want to tell you all about my gorgeous riverfront trails. I think Legion Park in Lincoln Square is by far the best place to experience what I have to offer. My trails are open for bikers and joggers to have pleasant jaunts through my gorgeous natural scenery of woods, wildflowers, and willows. I also have kayakers who get along swimmingly with my waterway. I love how much people enjoy my company. It’s so pleasant to see the neighborhood out enjoying the ambiance I provide, but one thing bothers me to no end. I mean it’s just so disappointing to see when riff raff come to my trails from outside the neighborhood! Like I understand not all the branches have manicured riverfront amenities, and if they do they’re just not as nice as mine. *Those People* come here to barbecue, stinking up the place with their choices in meat and always playing some loud, vulgar music. They act like they don’t have a backyard to do these things in. They drive up here to act all wild instead. This can be a detriment to the development of the land I run alongside, and lead to dropping property values. The community who loves me deserves to have high property values. Though I don’t want to be exclusionary, some things should be preserved and upheld.

Please don’t take what I’m saying out of context. I just want what’s best for my community. You can’t blame me for desiring something so reasonable. Honestly, it’s their own fault that none of the other branches have any of these lovely river attractions amenities. I’ve been here since 1910 and I have worked hard to look this good. The North is starting to turn around and lose all those industrial corridors but sheesh I assume the South Branch has so many they might even enjoy them. They are constantly protesting against the treatment of the branches and their industrial corridors. They never stop to think if their protesting affects us channelized canals. I understand they’re going through a lot. I wish I could help, but I really couldn’t if I tried. I just wish they would stop and just settle down in their community. I don’t know how to help them! Oh well, I can only do what’s best for my community by providing all this lovely scenery.

Escucha en español

  • Written by Tristen Ortiz
  • Produced by Anish Tailor
  • Performed by Sarah Rachel Schol
  • Story by Tristen Ortiz and Anish Tailo

Upper North Branch

This winding waterway, flanked along most of its borders by woods and walking trails, calls back to the river’s past while offering views of its potential future.

Upper North Branch

As a narrow, shallow branch that flows through the northwest suburbs and northwest side of Chicago before mingling with the North Branch, the Upper North Branch is the least manipulated section of the river. While other branches have been shaped by the city, the barge industry and unabashed growth, the Upper North Branch preserves the bends and memories of the river basin. It’s had some work done, including a new sewer tunnel built in the Jefferson Park neighborhood in 2014 that connects with the Deep Tunnel.

Character of the Upper North Branch

The Upper North Branch is a matronly figure in a large family tree. They don’t have any biological children, but serves as a mother-figure for all the youth in the family network. They know your mom from before you were born and can tell you stories that your mother would never mention. They hold a lot of institutional knowledge of the family tree. The Upper North Branch knows all the branches deeply. The other branches have forgotten where they came from, they have become disconnected from their identity and have changed. The Upper North Branch knows who they really are. They encourage the youth to remain true to their authentic selves.

About the actor

Born and bred in Chicago, Pinqy Ring first shook hands with the mic at age 15 when her love for learning hip-hop songs turned into a curiosity to try it for herself. A tough childhood, troubled teens and a catastrophic car accident all worked to mold the young artist into the powerful MC she is today. The accident, (which left Pinqy in a coma), served as the defining turning point in her life as she realized that telling her story was paramount. Pinqy has captivated several audiences in her hometown, including the Taste of Chicago in 2017, and has rocked stages in Miami, Washington, Denver, Austin, Houston.

Transcript of recording

I remember our trails of green foliage before they were smothered by opaque asphalt. When the skyscrapers were lands we once farmed and flowed through. In those times, I worked in tandem with the people who shared my banks for their homes and communities. I farmed a lot back then. My branch members North and South did so too, even Main Stem(!), as much as they try to distance themselves from our history. Our relationship with the Indigenous people was mutualistic and symbiotic. We benefited greatly through our organic communion. They grew and traded crops along our waterway with gentle, non-invasive methods. In our time together, we became close and worked alongside each other without harm done to any of the branches. This is all prior to the colonialists who believed that the branches were useless until they ripped our waterway apart and packed them with barges. 

You see, our family of branches have been here for thousands of years. Our history begins before colonial settlement. Yet, our history is told as if it begins when the North Shore Channel and the Sanitary and Ship Canal tore into our community. Many are mistaken and misinformed to think we have always looked this way and that the canal and channel have always been here. These misconceptions muddle our history much like how they muddled our waterways through pollution and destruction. I’ve been able to keep my appearance relatively fresh through time without major pollution. Unfortunately, the rest of the family has been subjugated by the Canal and Channel. South Branch is invaded by industrial corridors as it speaks out against the system that continues to strip our history away.  

I continue to share our history downstream so it may inform people of our family of waterways, and encourage them to stand up for our community. Only by embracing our past, and our true selves, will we bring about a better future for all of us.

Escucha en español

  • Written by Tristen Ortiz
  • Produced by Anish Tailor
  • Performed by Pinqy Ring
  • Story by Tristen Ortiz and Anish Tailor

Water Crisis in Joliet

You would not expect to read about a water crisis alongside a river, but overextraction can cause depletion and watershed collapse anywhere. This has occurred in northeastern Illinois in the case of the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. At the same time, companies like Amazon have received tax breaks and water discounts to open warehouses in the area.

The biggest drawdown of the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer from a single community has been in the city of Joliet (the third most populous city in Illinois), where the aquifer’s water level has fallen by over 800 feet. Joliet and other southwestern suburbs of Chicago in Will, Kendall, Kane and DuPage counties are at the highest risk of aquifer collapse. In this area, sustainable withdrawals from the aquifer would fall between 2 to 7 million gallons per day (mgd), yet in 2018 total demand on the aquifer was 36.7 mgd. 12.8 mgd of this demand came from three large petrochemical users.

In March 2021, Joliet entered an agreement with the City of Chicago to switch its water supply to Lake Michigan water, treated by the Chicago Department of Water Management. Chicago agreed to begin supplying Joliet with water no later than January 1, 2030 for a duration of 100 years.  Joliet will then supply the water to its customers within and beyond its municipal boundaries.

The historic agreement in which the City of Chicago pledged to supply Joliet with treated Lake Michigan water will not be sufficient to alleviate risk to the regional groundwater supply. The Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) found that most sandstone wells in the southwestern suburbs, including Joliet, are at risk of not meeting future demand even when accounting for Joliet’s switch to Lake Michigan water. While Joliet’s switch will significantly reduce overall aquifer demand, increases in demand from other communities will counteract this decline. Accordingly, the ISWS projects that most communities in the region will be forced off the aquifer with the only uncertainty being how soon this occurs. Water conservation and changes to suburban development patterns could lessen the strain, but future demand is unpredictable, and unaccounted-for demands from new users can accelerate projected groundwater losses by decades.

Over the last twenty years, the exponential growth of the warehouse and logistics sector has dramatically changed the industrial landscape in Joliet. This is due to a hot logistics market and the steady rise of e-commerce. Global retailers, logistics providers  and product distributors such as Amazon, Walmart, IKEA, Home Depot, Mars and Whirlpool are just a few of the major tenants in warehouses and distribution centers across Joliet’s twenty-one industrial parks which constitute nearly one-third of the city. Journalist Alexander Sammon has described the sprawl of these boxed facilities as an enormous, horizontal equivalent game of Tetris. Since 2010, the workforce in transportation, warehousing, and utilities has grown 3%. The transportation, warehousing and utilities sector is ranked as the third-largest employer and employed 11.2% of Joliet population in 2021.

Yana Kalmyka, formerly with Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), speaking in spring 2022 about the incredible cost of Joliet’s drinking water crisis while warehouses like Amazon have simultaneously received immense tax breaks and discounts on water to operate in the area.

Transcript of Recording

Talking to you all at the Freshwater Lab, I want to share that Joliet is in the middle of a water crisis, and a lot of the south suburbs are close to follow. Joliet is projected to be unable to meet their demand with their current water source by 2030, so that’s a timetable of less than ten years before people don’t have access to that water. Currently, the water source is an aquifer, so it’s more related to the lake than the river. But water systems are all deeply entwined. And it’s really fascinating because people need a new water source. They’re trying to build this billion dollar pipeline to Chicago to start getting water from Lake Michigan, which is great. And actually, a lot of our folks are excited to have potentially cleaner water than what they’ve had before. But the city is saying that to pay for this billion dollar pipeline, they are going to triple people’s water bills. And we do a lot of engagement on the doors around this. And folks have told me straight up many times that they would have to leave their home, potentially a home that they grew up in or move their family to, or whatever many reasons folks might have for setting up a home in Joliet, but they wouldn’t be able to afford their lifestyle anymore if their water bill tripled. Right. And for a working class person, and especially if we go back to my stats about how much warehouse workers in particular are making, that triple increase is really dire. 

And so the other interesting part of all this is that Amazon alone has gotten about $741 million in tax breaks from Northeast Illinois alone. So just the Chicago land area that we’re in. And that’s almost enough to pay for the entire pipeline. And this is money that’s coming from taxpayer dollars that has been given to Amazon to set up shop, to provide unsafe and unstable jobs for people. And so to say all that, some of the work we’ve been doing is getting community members together, really getting input on what we think might be a fair solution for the community, and landing on asking some of these huge multi billion dollar corporations that are profiting excessively from this region in particular, to pay a little bit more so that everyone else can pay a little less. And out of our curiosity, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which was subsequently covered in a Belt article by a great reporter, Adam Mahoney. And we were curious to know how much Amazon is using and other warehouses are using. And we found that Amazon by itself, so just one of hundreds of warehouses in Will County, is using over 106 times the water as a regular household, and yet are paying pretty much the same rate. Right. And not to mention all the tax breaks they’re getting. So within those tax breaks or water bills, are more than covered, right?

A Just Transition

In order to be successful, decarbonization (ending fossil fuel dependence) must attend to the people involved. Changing how industry operates directly impacts workers whose labor and health must be prioritized through job retraining and environmental protections.

The South Branch and the Sanitary and Ship Canal offer few places to access the river. It takes an adventurous spirit to move through industrial hubs, dodge semi trucks, and navigate broken glass to reach the water. The Canalport Riverwalk, a five-acre park that straddles the South Branch and the canal, is one of the few access points on Chicago’s West Side. Its existence is barely known even to longtime residents.The courageous spirits who visit contend with smells of exhaust and grinding noise from metal being shredded across the water.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies neighborhoods along this part of the river as environmental justice communities that face ongoing environmental and public health harms.

Here, pollution doesn’t cease but only takes new forms. For example, grassroots activism in Pilsen and Little Village shut down the last two coal power plants along the Chicago River and made plans for clean energy hubs and green industry in their place. But, behind closed doors, corporations like Amazon and HILCO launched plans for warehouses and distribution centers where power plants once stood. On Easter weekend 2020, Hilco contractors blew up the Crawford coal power plant in Little Village, blanketing the neighborhood in toxic dust during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hilco next built a distribution center for Target a mile away from schools and a park that increased truck traffic by 400 vehicle movements per day (a total of 700 trucks pass through the site every day).

Warehouses often receive public funding through tax abatements and other incentives under the guise of creating new jobs. However, these jobs tend to be low-wage and have hazardous work environments, and there is little guarantee that warehouse neighbors will find employment in them. Due to the high number of injuries in warehouse work, the jobs in question tend to be short-term.

Exclusion of community input characterizes development along the South Branch. The famous Damen Silos once stood on 23 acres next to Canalport Riverwalk Park. Abandoned long ago and featured in the movie Transformers: Age of Extinction, the State of Illinois looked to unload the cost of maintaining the silos by selling the property. Their sale transpired without involvement by residents or input from community leaders. Although they sit directly on the riverfront, environmentalists and river lovers had no say about the sale of the silos. Local groups and neighbors are concerned that more pollution is coming from the new owner, who is notorious for building an asphalt plant in McKinley Park in close proximity to a major park, school and homes without proper notice.

In contrast to this cycle of pollution and disenfranchisement, a just transition approach forefronts community-based economic initiatives. A Just Transition framework places people first to avoid perpetuating environmental and labor injustices. This means active engagement in shifts around production and industry from all impacted groups including employers, workers, elected officials and neighbors to ensure the creation of well-paying green jobs with health benefits that reflect the vision and skills of the community.

Toward achieving a just transition, the Pilsen-Little Village River Corridor Project developed “a master plan for a healthier, more accessible Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal corridor from Bubbly Creek to west of Pulaski Road on Chicago’s southwest side.” Community-based redevelopment of the area seeks to provide clean and healthy jobs, economic growth and options for leisure and recreation.

The Freshwater Lab strives to contribute to a just transition by reimagining a green space in the Pilsen industrial corridor. Currently, we are collaborating on the Rio de Bienvenida/River of Welcome Project funded by the E(art)h Chicago initiative. The public art project will be situated at Canalport Riverwalk. It will be composed of laser-cut metal and mosaics facing the water with designs that symbolize the vision for cleaner air and water. Through a series of art workshops, community members engage in conversations and design discussions around how to make the park more welcoming and accessible.

Edith Tovar, Senior Justice Transition Organizer with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), speaking in spring 2022 about what it means to imagine a Just Transition for each community.

“A Just Transition is thinking about moving from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.”

Transcript of Recording

Just transition is not a cookie cutter solution and it’s not a cookie cutter template. And each community literally has to figure out, what is the type of job force that we want to see in our community? And we know from Little Village, like, it’s agriculture. Like, there’s so much agricultural knowledge that we should not be ashamed for it. I think that’s one of the things about being an immigrant community as well, is that sometimes we feel like working the land can be embarrassing, but sometimes it’s like such a gift, right, that we’re able to grow fruit from a seed and go through that whole process and thinking about how that can be a possibility, how we can lower our carbon emission, right? If we produce locally, we can deliver literally a few feet away. We don’t even need trucks. We’ll probably just take it in our bikes, right, and start thinking about, like, those. I know it sounds like a little bit silly and it’s a little bit utopian, but I think it could happen. We are just so close. it’s not simple. I know it’s not simple, but just like, the thought of being able to work with the land or being able to install solar farms in your community and working in your community and shopping in your community, that just, builds the wealth for folks to be able to thrive, right. And to look at their job is just like, not only a job, but something that they also enjoy doing. And I know it sounds weird. 

Additional comments by Citlalli Trujillo of the Freshwater Lab:

All the jobs that are offered in those kinds of communities are like warehouse, factory jobs. What do you see us as? What do you see as, you know, only someone you’re making money off of us. And even then, those types of jobs, they’re harmful. The dangerous labor that goes into a warehouse job, factory job, all the bending and the repetitiveness, that kind of thing hurts your body. It wears your body down over time. And even then again, those kinds of jobs don’t care. They don’t want you to unionize. They don’t want you to bring up those kinds of concerns. They’ll fire you. And you can be easily replaced by the next person. Exactly.

Edith Tovar, Senior Justice Transition Organizer with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), speaking in spring 2022 about two example projects implemented by LVEJO - La Villita Park and las semillas de justicia, seeds for justice garden - that serve as models for moving towards a Just Transition.

Transcript of Recording

And so some of the examples that we have of just transition and Little Village is the Celotex site, which was once upon a time a Superfund site that has been converted into the second largest park, green space in Little Village, which is La Villita Park, developed. The organizers back then, they had a lot of community meetings. They had a lot of input from residents. Through the data that they collected, they found out that there’s close to about 2,000 children within a 1 mile radius that live in close proximity to this park. So they built a beautiful children’s play area. There’s a skate park that was designed by youth in the area and there’s a few soccer fields and basketball courts and baseball fields. But yeah, those are examples of Just Transition, right, what was once something so toxic can be converted and can be utilized. 

Again, another example is the Semillas de Justicia (seeds of justice) garden, which was another brownfield here. The problem was that there were dozens of old oil containers buried on the ground that started to seep. And with the seepage, a lot of toxic smells started to come up. And so the city was able to clean it and NeighborSpace was able to acquire that. And so we’ve been working with NeighborSpace to have a free community garden where we have about 45 families that have access to land, where they grow herbs, fruit, vegetables. And in these last two years that we have really opened up the garden, the first year in 2020, the gardeners produced about two tons of food. And that’s like chilies, tomatoes, onions, garlic, things that we can really weigh, not so much the herbs. And in 2021, we saw an increase to four tons of food. So the same amount of land, just a whole lot of folks more interested in getting access to land. And the head gardener also created a program. And again, this is another mode of just transition, mutual aid, where a lot of the family saw that they were going to have a lot of their veggies leftover -they started hanging grocery bags from the fans. And we made social media posts like, if folks want to pick up fresh organic veggies, come pick them up at the garden, in a way, also distributing food in that way. And so those are examples of just transition. And so those are the examples that we would love to see projects like this duplicated and so many different opportunities.

Decommission the Pipeline

We must stop using rivers to transport carbon. Why risk waters so important as sources of drinking water and sites of recreation for a dead industry?

Fisk generating station slip, July 9, 2016. (Photo: Matthew Kaplan Photography©)

Survival on Planet Earth depends upon the essential act of decarbonization. In every place and in every possible way, we must stop burning fossil fuels and replace them with renewable sources of energy. Decarbonizing water, a crucial and dwindling element, must take priority.

Decommissioning American rivers as fossil fuel pipelines should be straightforward. We simply need to stop sending carbon-based products along their routes. 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 are negligible. 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 multiple tributaries would significantly improve drinking water and public health for everyone east of the Rocky Mountains. Furthermore, it marks prudent advance planning no matter one’s views on oil: in the fall of 2022, over 2000 barges backed up on the Mississippi due to a flash drought.

The canals that serve as pipelines in the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) interact in an industrial system that compromises air quality, threatens the safety of water and harms the bodies of people who live near its nodes. Decommissioning the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and Calumet-Saganashkee (Cal-Sag) Channel as pipelines can occur by redirecting the barge industry’s subsidy to renewable energy.

In communities along Illinois canals and rivers, people want clean jobs that offer worker safety and financial stability for current and future generations. Instead of paying for the transport of carbon commodities that speed up climate change and threaten property and livelihood, we can advance clean industry.

River to Table

Four species known as Asian carp or Copi swim in Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers. Across the Great Lakes, alarms sound that the fish will ride the canal and enter Lake Michigan.

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

While the ecological and economic problems the carp pose are legitimate, dubbing the fish Asian carp racializes the issue. It clouds the thinking of Rust Belt folk primed to believe their economic woes are caused by Asian economies. Rather than perpetuate the racialized rhetoric that justifies militarized solutions like a costly checkpoint for carp, we can take actions that demilitarize our sacred streams. A more holistic river to table approach is underway.

Fish provide an important protein source for many humans.  Bighead and Silver carp are particularly high in coveted Omega-3s while having low mercury levels. One of the ways we can move away from harmful metaphors toward symbols that heal the watershed is to call carp food. Some folks already embrace carp as food.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) heard the call and launched a number of programs to turn carp into valuable products. By paying fishermen for their time and allowing them individual profit from their haul, IDNR made netting carp a lucrative prospect. Between 2010 and 2017,  the program pulled 5.5 million pounds of carp from the upper Illinois River. Building on this success, a new threshold aimed to remove 1 million pounds a year from the upper Illinois and 15 million pounds from its lower span. In 2020, 2.9 million pounds of carp were removed from the Illinois River and directed to a new processing plant on its banks. Through September 2021, fishermen caught an additional 2.5 million pounds.

In the summer of 2021, many of the carp-curious signed up for an IDNR zoom event to give a new name to the reviled Asian carp. Inspired by earlier seafood name changes like slimehead to orange roughy, or Patagonian toothfish to Chilean sea bass, the move aimed to open markets for the increasingly carp-laden nets of Illinois fishermen. After some delay and onboarding a Chicago brand company, the rollout of Copi, a name focused on the copiousness of the fish and their nutritional benefits, happened in June 2022.

Members of the Freshwater Lab had a chance to taste the fish in its pre-Copi days at a fall 2019 banquet held at Southern Illinois University’s Touch of Nature lodge. The “Asian Carp Convivial” formed part of artists Sarah Lewison and Andrew S. Yang’s project centered on what they call “a Postnatural Fish.” Lewison and Yang also created billboards that read “Eat the River, Heal the River (Asian Carp: Nutritious and Hecka Delicious)” and declared them a “Midwest Superfood.”  In a campers’ hall in the forest, tables were lined with original Lewison and Yang fishtory placemats and boisterous folk having their first taste of the infamous fish.  

The filets that we folded into tacos had been prepared by Fin Fishery, a Kentucky based company whose owners produce a range of products from carp. They see the sudden influx of fish as offering people a chance to enjoy catch from the wild. Eating Copi helps to heal rivers overrun by channels of commodity exchange that have depleted their ecosystems. In the spirit of healing, the fishery also hires formerly incarcerated people to process the fish and make the products, giving them a second chance where other businesses close the door. Adaptive orientations like these can help people across the globe learn to harvest what their rivers yield and promote their restoration.

The Utility of Utilities

The necessary reorientation toward waste requires new water economics. Money extracted by private corporations can be reclaimed to build state of the art civic infrastructure for the 21st century and beyond.

Monopoly board (Pexels)

As people began moving and building American cities like Chicago, they needed drinking water and sanitation services. Because industrialists drove early urbanization, they preferred that private companies provide for these needs. However, it turned out that water infrastructure is both expensive and integral to urban development. Privatized services failed to provide safe, reliable water across the country. In their place, municipal utilities arose to procure and distribute water. In the mid-twentieth century, federal funds supported the expansion and improvement of water infrastructure. Later in the century, funds were stripped from water utilities and redirected to private interests. This trend is known as water privatization.

Water privatization takes many forms. Often, privatization involves multinational corporations taking over drinking and wastewater operations, cutting costs, and accruing profit. Bottled water represents another form of privatization in which mammoth beverage companies tap local springs. As beverage giants count water as their most valuable product, communities where the water sources are located lose out on both water and revenue. Closing the loop of the municipal water cycle also involves redirecting streams of revenue back to utilities. In place of private multinational corporations profiting from local water, we propose that water departments include beverage companies (particularly when they sell the very water that runs from the tap) under their umbrella. In this way, profits can be reinvested in updating infrastructure and ensuring affordable water for residents.

Bottled water is the most obvious product that should be overseen by utilities but not the only one. Almost everything produced requires water inputs. Our current system, however, looks to meet shortfalls in public operating budgets (or to enrich private companies) by increasing household water rates. In place of this skewed approach, the rates of industrial and commercial users who make money from water should shoulder more of the burden for safe, reliable water supply. In this sense, closing the loop involves patching leaky places where too much water is provided for too little of a return. Although the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides much needed funding for water infrastructure, it remains insufficient for all the needed upgrades and innovations. Instead of subsidizing harmful industries that further enrich a tight nucleus of CEOs, local waters can help maintain systems that widely benefit human and non-human residents.

Wealth from Waste

What if we rejected the very possibility of water as waste? How might this shift get us out of the 19th century and help us to embrace the 21st? What if, instead of flushing, we kept replenishing the tank?

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)

Modern society is acclimated to the drain, a liquid parallel to the garbage can. The cyclicality of water suggests another model – drops that morph from rain to lakewater to fog and ice as they move through a number of natural and engineered systems. When we easily dispense with water, we break its cycle and create waste that comes back to haunt us. In an age when we long for water during droughts and fear it during intense storms, a non-wasteful orientation must emerge. There is no choice but to balance new water extremes through reservoirs and reuse. We need to close the loop to emulate nature and the ways water circulates through many landscapes and forms. Closing the loop of the Sanitary and Ship Canal marks a crucial step in transforming the Rust Belt to the Water Belt. Instead of diverting water from Chicago as a southbound wastestream, we can recycle it to support industry in water-stressed communities. This would help protect Lake Michigan for human needs and ecosystem viability.

Water recycling sheds its utopian glaze with every update about the West’s once-in-a-1200-year drought, the demise of the Colorado River, or the imminent collapse of the Ogallala Aquifer. Even in proximity to deep lakes and wide rivers, groundwater levels across the world are bottoming out. Irreplaceable water sources are disappearing and humans cannot continue to treat viable water as waste.

The Great Lakes watershed does not face acute water stress, but it has responsibility and incentive to grow its available supply while ensuring the lakes don’t go the way of other water bodies. The time has come for Chicago to undertake its next wondrous feat of water engineering. Reengineering the world’s most engineered waterway in the era of climate change looks like this.

Here’s what stays the same: Rain and drains still meet in Chicago’s combined sewer system, slosh through the deep tunnel, and undergo treatment at wastewater plants.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) runs seven treatment plants. We propose that each of these plants is enhanced to produce water for specific purposes like industry, agriculture, or even emergency supply. Most will provide water for industrial processes in communities whose water source has collapsed and, as a result, request drinking water from Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is not limitless. In fact, the volume of water that the State of Illinois can withdraw from the lake is set by the U.S. Supreme Court. In order to both sustain our communities and enable economic growth, we must reorient ourselves and turn wastewater into the basis for sustainable industry.

Unlike wealth that generates waste, wealth that comes from waste must be distributed equally with direct benefits for those who disproportionately experience the failure of existing infrastructure. For example, the introduction of recycled water can both increase overall supply and raise revenue to help make water bills more affordable and to retrofit dangerous lead service lines.

In conjunction with water recycling, biogas can be derived from wastewater and help with the transition to renewable energy. Other valuable minerals and metals can also be harvested as part of water recycling. In fact, the MWRD is already doing some of this. It has teamed up with Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technology for the world’s biggest harvest of nutrients from wastewater. In a massive closed loop, Ostara harvests phosphorus and nitrogen at MWRD’s Stickney Plant and turns it into Crystal Green fertilizer. As a continuous release fertilizer, Crystal Green supercharges the growth of plants without overloading them with nutrients or relying on a petrochemical base. Whereas conventional fertilizers sit at the top of fields and easily runoff during rain storms, Crystal Green goes right to the roots of plants. This helps prevent harmful algae blooms which cause dead zones. Crystal Green shows how wastewater can yield socially beneficial products that bring revenue back into Greater Chicago’s water reclamation district.

Every site of existing water treatment can be extended to full water reclamation and resource recovery that transforms waste into revenue-generating products whose building blocks, in turn, can be reclaimed in an ongoing feedback loop.

Learn more here

No More Single Use Water

No matter its levels of regulation or deregulation, treatment or neglect, we cannot afford to treat water as garbage.

Proposed Dual-Pipeline Infrastructure Pathways Connecting Joliet to Treated Lake Michigan Water (CDWM) and Recycled Water from Stickney WRP (MWRD) (Adapted from figures from City of Joliet, 2020 & 2021)

A vital component of climate change adaptation involves rejecting single use plastic. Individual acts like refusing straws and plastic cutlery and structural changes like sourcing materials from plants rather than petrochemicals all help to reduce the toxic waste mounting around us. A wrapper that you pull off in seconds will outlast you by many thousands of years.

In a similar vein, we should not contain life-sustaining water in harmful plastic bottles. Instead, water sourced from particular springs and taps should provide benefits to the local waterworks and ecosystem. The bulging bottled water profits of multinational corporations can become revenue for utilities and public companies whose earnings are reinvested in water infrastructure. Containers for such genuinely artisanal water can be made from biodegradable materials available in the region (get ready for corn husk bottles, Illinois).

As important as rejecting single use plastic is avoiding single use water. Our current system relates to water in single use terms. For example, as soon as you wash your hands, the water goes down the drain. Such ways of relating to water are flawed because all the water that moves through the earth already exists. Not only do we have all the water that we are ever going to receive, but it is also disappearing due to the warming of the planet. We harm ourselves by turning water that we use once into waste. Words matter: assigning the label of waste to water sanctions actions like the dumping of poisonous compounds. We then encounter this water again as something dangerous.

Multi-use water, in contrast, involves cycling water through our world in ways that emulate nature. At the scale of the household, imagine that the water with which you wash your hands goes through a filter before running your dishwasher or washing machine (biodegradable cleansers only!) then moving through another filter before you use the same water for plants outside.

At a larger scale, multi-use water would flow to treatment plants that specialize in removal of domestic and pharmaceutical contaminants, enabling at least three stages of municipal water use.

Water that flows from our taps is primary water treated for drinking and bathing. Most current infrastructure deals with this water used a single time as waste. However, it can be recycled as beneficial secondary water through additional processes of treatment and disinfection. It can even be treated to drinking water levels but only consumed in the event of an emergency.

The main destination for secondary water is commercial and industrial enterprises. Secondary water can also support irrigation during drought conditions. Specific wastewater treatment plants can be retrofitted in order to produce water for particular purposes.

Secondary water can have multiple destinations and be reclaimed as tertiary water for use in other industrial processes. Any given factory or business could economize by setting up its own water reuse system. This would cut down on water bills and allow the enterprise to use and reuse a given volume of water many times. Various compounds and heavy metals can even be harvested onsite and reapplied thereby cutting down on the need for elements extracted from the earth. Water released at any stage of the cycle should receive the best possible treatment as it feeds canals and rivers, perhaps even reviving dry rivers or emptied aquifers.

By changing our societal orientation toward waste, we can produce beneficial products through non-extractive means. Repurposing the elements of wastewater at state of the art water recycling plants offers ways to meet new limits on emerging contaminants like PFAs (forever chemicals) and microplastics. Treatment technologies, based on scientific studies of dangerous toxins in water, can remove present and anticipated pollutants in order to produce water with long-term viability.

A digital storytelling project of the Freshwater Lab at the University of Illinois Chicago

The backward river in question is the Chicago, reversed at the dawn of the 20th century to serve industrial capitalism in a rising metropolis.

Before 1900, the winding Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan. Since 1900, the river has diverted Lake Michigan water into a canal that branches into the Des Plaines, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. Its outlet is the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, you read that correctly. The Chicago River or, more precisely, the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) punctures the continental divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

Compelling on its own, our story also dramatizes a widespread scenario of crumbling American infrastructure. At its heart rests a basic denial of malfunction, public harm and the disproportionate burdens placed on communities of color. In telling the story of The Backward River, we aim to cut through this denial and speak plainly.

Water Acknowledgement

The Chicago River flows through the traditional homelands of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi Nations. The Fox, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Miami and Sac tribes also call this region home. These communities have been targets of erasure by settler colonialism. The Backward River aims to highlight the histories, cultures and practices of Indigenous peoples who have a right to this land. Today, Chicago’s American Indian presence constitutes one of the country’s largest urban Indigenous communities.

The Backward River aims to address the disproportionate impacts of environmental degradation that burden Indigenous communities. The current uses of our local waters are borne of the violent logic of settler colonialism. We collaborate with Indigenous perspectives, which treat water as a vital artery in connecting trade, travel and family.

By making a water acknowledgement, we take a moment to thank the water for sustaining life and maintaining balance on Earth. We are grateful to the water for moistening the fields where our plants grow, for quenching our thirst, purifying our bodies and allowing us to travel by boat. In the form of springs, rivers, lakes and seas, the water is a mirror that reflects how we treat our environment. In the streams we hear the ancient song that preserves the memory of the beginning of life and our cosmic identity. Water also teaches us adaptability and fluidity, reminding us to mold to the circumstances and remain transparent, calm yet strong at the same time.

Indigenous communities have historically viewed the relationship between water and humans as one of kinship; today, members of this community continue to protect water as a source of healing and to highlight the symbolic power of water that teaches us how to understand history and ourselves.

Connect with us:

Learn how the river became what is it today through politics, power and public funding.
Listen to each branch of the Chicago River speak candidly about their experience.
What will the river tell you? Select a choice on the map to begin.
Discover what the future may hold for the water and the communities who depend on it.