Monday, September 13, 2010

This Mother of all Engineering Reversals might help out our Great Lakes

Chicago River dyed green for St. Paddy's Day
Once upon a time in Chicago, human waste was piped directly into the Chicago River, which sluggishly moved the shit out into Lake Michigan. There it sat, stinking and rotting in the harbor and wrecking the city and contaminating its drinking water supply and killing people with typhoid fever and cholera. That really sucked.

So around the turn of the last century those cunning Chicagoans devised a plan to save the harbor from human feces.

Ah…you’re probably thinking “stop spewing toilet water into the river, I mean, what the hell were we thinking in the first place?”  Wrong.

"Drink like raging alcoholics from morning 'till dusk and pour green dye in the river on St. Patrick's Day"? Wrong again.

No, those clever folks re-engineered the entire river system so that the Chicago River now flows OUT of Lake Michigan instead of IN to the lake. All the feces now floats away from the lake, and issues with stinking human sewage are someone else’s problem. Not Chicago’s.

Well, as you might expect, tinkering with Mother Nature leads to unintended consequences. Connecting the river to the Gulf of Mexico-bound Mississippi River has provided a superhighway for invasive species. Wetlands and other natural features have been altered in myriad ways. And of course the Great Lakes is now losing, rather than gaining, water from the Chicago River – a significant issue in an era where global warming and poor water use practices threaten to permanently lower lake levels.

So when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley says he wants to restore the natural flow of the river it is a very interesting proposition. It would be a huge engineering feat, a great expense and would need to overcome numerous political hurdles over the next couple decades. But why not?


1 comment:

  1. Your photo reminds me of the line in "The Fugitive" when Tommy Lee Jones takes a break from chasing Harrison Ford to question: "If they can dye the river green today, why can't they dye it blue the other 364 days of the year?"