Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Chicago Series Part III: Education off the River

This final post in the Chicago Series details our HIGHLY educational final day running around the city, so it’s a bit longer and more involved than previous posts.

Part III: Education off the River
Our last day in Chicago was jam-packed with educational experiences, both for us and from us. First thing in the morning, Nick, Jess, and Marissa headed to the Camelot School in Mount Prospect, IL for our first school visit. The teachers there are focusing on themes involving adventure and water this year – straight up our alley. At the beginning of the hour-long session, many of the students didn’t understand why our crew cared so much about water, but by the end, most were asking a ton of questions and starting to realize the importance of our waterways. Mission success.

Meanwhile, Liz, Natalie, Lee, and I (Mark) took the L into Chicago to meet up with the Army Corps of Engineers. The lock at Navy Pier ended up being fairly far from the station where we stopped, and the walk there was far more confusing than it should have been. This is only worth mentioning because of the important insight we derived from this experience: urban design caters mainly to the automobile, often at the expense of the pedestrian. The same can be said of urban waterways, which are constructed for the passage of barges and larger watercraft rather than paddlers. We’ve already had many experiences to reinforce this, so it may very well become its own blog post.

The lock at Navy Pier

When we got to Navy Pier, we skipped the ferris wheel and went straight to the Army Corps site at the lock and dam, which we entered through a barbed-wire fence gate. The whole site gave off the aura of a top-secret facility, but when we met our two hosts, Dave Wethington and Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Lovell, they ensured us that the Army Corps is a transparent organization that is seeking to share their work with the public. I’m guessing that most Americans know almost nothing about the Army Corps of Engineers. Let me share what I learned:

·      The Army Corps of Engineers is indeed a branch of the army, but they are first and foremost devoted to “engineering solutions for our Nation’s toughest challenges.”
·      The Army Corps actually does build army bases, but they are better known domestically for their civil works and infrastructure projects. They’re called in on all the big projects, the ones that you and I would assume to be impossible. Example: reversing the flow of the Chicago River. They built the Navy Pier lock to keep the Chicago River from flowing into Lake Michigan, and then constructed the 28-mile Shipping and Sanitary Canal to instead send the river flowing south toward the Mississippi.
·      Everything I had previously learned about the Army Corps came from Environmental Studies classes. The Corps have a bad reputation with environmentalists, because they’re the group that really messes with nature by damming rivers, redirecting waterways, etc. Dave and LTC Lovell explained how the Corps are also heavily involved in flood control and environmental restoration projects. I was impressed by the way they confronted the complexity of these problems, rather than looking for one silver bullet. 

Chicago skyline from the Navy Pier lock
 Asian carp
Photo credit to Josh Mogerman
The major project facing the Chicago Army Corps right now is keeping Asian carp, an aggressive invasive species, out of Lake Michigan. The Chicago River is the only major route for the carp to enter the Great Lakes Chain, so it is the vital link that needs to be protected – the last defense, if you will. Some of the language surrounding the issue, and the whole idea of an Asian carp mass assault on our waterways, comes across as slightly absurd to me. The Corps has built an “electric dispersal barrier” on the Shipping and Sanitary Canal, close to Lockport, IL, to keep the carp from progressing upstream. The barrier is a behavioral defense, which starts by merely annoying the swimming carp with prickling shockwaves, and ends with a powerful surge that renders the carp immobile, causing it to float back downstream. Somewhat ridiculous, but effective so far.

Lee pointed out something interesting about water management in different countries: the U.S. is pouring millions of dollars into projects to combat an invasive species while other countries are struggling to supply their people with clean drinking water. Different priorities, I guess. Ironically, the wastewater treatment plants along the Chicago River still don’t have tertiary treatment, aka wastewater sanitation. This means that we were paddling down a waterway where unsanitized wastewater makes up 60-85% of the river. Thus, no swimming or drinking allowed. When Dave told us this, I immediately regretted my decision to forgo a shower after paddling the previous day.

Matt the tour guide

With our heads filled to bursting with information about redirected waterways and Asian carp invasions, we left the Army Corps base, grabbed a quick lunch, and headed over to the Chicago River Museum. Our tour guide, Matt, led us through the five different floors of the McCormick Bridgehouse, which is fittingly located on the Chicago River at Michigan Ave. My biggest takeaway from the stories Matt told us and the old photos and quotes on the wall is that Chicago used to be an inconceivably awful place to live. Rudyard Kipling, who hailed from India, had this to say about his visit: “I have struck a city—a real city—and they call it Chicago… Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.”

One of the main reasons for Chicago’s atrocious living conditions is that the site where the city rose up was originally a swamp. During its early industrial years, the city suffered from all sorts of problems with disease and flooding. Chicago was growing rapidly as a transportation and industrial hub, and the river was treated as a dumping ground by the meatpacking factories and lumberyards. At that time, the river, and thus all the sewage, flowed into Lake Michigan, which was the city’s drinking source. They had overlooked an important rule: you don’t drink where you poo. In 1900, the river reversal allowed them to send all their sewage south to St. Louis instead. This action did not make any friends for Chicago, but it did improve the city’s health.

Just as the residents of Chicago shaped the river, the river in turn shaped the city. Yes, it bred disease when it became polluted, but its positive effects far outweighed the negative. If it wasn’t for the river and the transportation it allowed, Chicago would never have existed. So here’s to the Chicago River, as filthy as it might be.

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