BoatUS Special Report


Separation Anxiety

By Chris Landers
Published: June/July 2013

Double Duty

The Sanitary and Ship Canal is named for its dual purposes. It was designed to provide a transit link (the New Orleans Times-Picayune greeted its completion 113 years ago by saying, "Next to Chicago, New Orleans ought to secure the best returns from the canal, which has not cost it one cent ... ."), but it was also a means of waste disposal. Chicago takes its drinking water from Lake Michigan, so it could then pump its waste into the river.

At the other end of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, in the Gulf of Mexico, there's a "dead zone" covering as much as 8,000 square miles of water. Excess nutrients — mainly phosphorus and nitrogen — annually cause algae to bloom and die, depleting the oxygen that other forms of life need to survive. Chicago isn't the only contributor, but the United States Geological Survey identified it as a primary source. In 2010, several environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Chicago to stop polluting the water in the Gulf, some 1,500 miles away.

Photo of the Falkirk Wheel, in Scotland
Photo: Wikipedia
The Falkirk Wheel, in Scotland, rotates like a Ferris wheel.
Boats remain upright in a water-filled trough.

Charles Melching, an environmental engineer who is consulting on the Army Corps study, says it's not as simple as shutting off the flow. "Imagine if instead of all these nutrients having thousands of miles to go through, they were all going into southern Lake Michigan," he says. The southern part of the lake is fairly stagnant, Melching says. If the Chicago waterway were cut off from the Mississippi, carp might not be able to make a home in Lake Michigan, but neither would anything else, possibly including Chicago. The city has made great strides in wastewater treatment, and is currently working on an ambitious underground Tunnel and Reservoir Program, but the project is not expected to be finished before 2029, which is when final barriers could be erected (a temporary barrier could be in place by 2022, according to the Great Lakes Commission report).

According to a completed section of the Army Corps' Great Lakes study, about 1,000 recreational boats pass through the Lockport Locks every year. At the T.J. O'Brien Lock on the Calumet River, closer to the lake, that number increases tenfold, and at the Chicago River lock at the edge of Lake Michigan near the city, it's close to 29,000. That doesn't include the various sightseeing boats, ferries, or other commercial vessels. For barges, the trend is reversed, with far more traffic headed upstream through the Lockport Locks and comparatively little through the Chicago River lock. The Corps reported that 15.9 million tons of cargo moved through the Chicago waterways in 2009, but added that "traffic over the last 15 years could be characterized as flat to declining."

A 2010 study commissioned by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce put the costs of closing the locks at $1.3 billion a year, with recreational boating costs amounting to more than $140 million of that total, but there have been a range of higher and lower estimates. The cost to construct barriers and make the necessary upgrades for transportation and water quality, according to the Great Lakes Commission, could be as high as $9.5 billion for the most expensive of the separation schemes outlined in its report.

"There's certainly some urgency on the part of people in the Great lakes," says Ahart, "but it's such a huge project, it's going to be hard to put through legislation and other things to get the funding together."

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