The topic of water has always been something I was interested in. Back in 4th grade, our class did a unit on Chicago history. While my classmates chose to do projects on Marshall Fields and the Sears Tower (I will never refer to it as Willis Tower), I did my project on Lake Michigan.
Naturally, I was very excited about a class entirely on water and the information did not disappoint!
Our first presenter was from the City of Chicago Department of Water Management. If you do not know the history of Chicago’s water system and its use of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, it is pretty darn cool. (At least I think so!)
The Chicago River naturally flows into Lake Michigan. After decades of sewage being dumped into the River, the water intake structures needed to be extended to pull in water that was not contaminated farther out in the Lake.
In 1867, the first tunnel was constructed 2 miles out into the Lake. The water intake crib was built on shore then floated out the 2 miles and sunk to the bottom with bricks. The intake tunnels were constructed 60 feet below the Lake level and began from both the crib and the shore to meet in the middle. Amazingly there was an only 7-inch difference between the two when they met. That is a phenomenal feat for that time!
The Chicago Pumping Station and Water Tower were built in 1869, survived the Chicago Fire of 1871, and are still in service today!
With all the sewage flowing into Lake Michigan from the Chicago River, it was decided to reverse its flow towards the Mississippi River. Construction of channels started in 1895 to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and were finished in 1900.
Speaking of the Chicago River, our second presenter was from the Friends of the Chicago River. This nonprofit is dedicated to improving and protecting the Chicago River system for people, plants, and animals.
When Chicago’s water system was constructed, it combined both our stormwater and wastewater sewers. The system works fine when there has not been a lot of precipitation (and by a lot I only mean 0.3 inches of rainfall).
Add that bit of rainfall and a combined sewer overflow (CSO) can happen, sending untreated sewage into the Chicago River.
On days where there is a major rain event with the potential to overwhelm our sewers and flush harmful waste into the river, Friends will declare an Overflow Action Day. These events call for citizens to reduce the amount of water that will head into the sewer system.
Take the Overflow Action Day Pledge and sign up for the CSO Notification System from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago to learn more about when CSOs occur! You can also visit istheresewageinthechicagoriver.com for updates on whether or not sewage has been released into the river.
It is super gross and not something you would think about until you are personally affected by a CSO, which I have! While living in DC, I was participating in the Nation’s Triathlon. It rained a lot the night before, causing a CSO, and the swim portion of the race to be cancelled. You can read more about this experience when I blogged for the EPA here.
I loved learning about the history of Chicago’s water, but I am equally excited to cover waste in our next class!