Chicago River has become invasive species highway

Tribune News Service • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:58 AM

Water isn’t even the first thing you notice where the river merges with a notoriously fouled little tributary, dubbed Bubbly Creek for the gases still belching from untold tons of cow carcasses dumped into it by the city’s old stockyards.

Floating on the surface is the crinkly corpse of a pink Mylar balloon that’s wrapped itself around a 40-ounce beer bottle. Nearby is a pumpkin stuck in the muck, orbited by an array of tampon applicators and plastic bottle caps. Just below a sewer pipe that excretes a septic stew when big rains hit, a boot floats sole-up next to a tennis shoe; if the pair were a match you’d fret they were attached to feet.

Above it all, gleaming in the midafternoon sunlight a few miles to the northeast, are the two white tusks atop the Willis Tower, pinnacle of Chicago’s lakeshore skyline. The Chicago River no longer flows that direction, toward Lake Michigan — the city’s drinking water source. It instead tumbles into a man-made canal that whisks it across a continental divide, away from the Great Lakes, and into the Mississippi River basin.

At least it does for now.

Some regional leaders have begun to explore a multibillion-dollar plumbing project to rechannel the Chicago River so it once again does what nature designed it to do — sustain Lake Michigan instead of drain it.

The threat of Asian carp swimming up the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal from the Mississippi River basin and into Lake Michigan spawned talked of re-engineering Chicago’s waterways several years ago, but today it is more than talk.

A $2 million study by the Great Lakes Commission and a group representing the region’s mayors provides the most detailed prescription yet on how to restore the natural divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins that Chicago destroyed over a century ago in a desperate move to channel its sewage and industrial wastes away from the lake.

Today the region is feeling a different kind of desperation.

Biologists predict the number of unwanted organisms moving on the Chicago canal will only grow until the waterway is somehow plugged. And it is much more than a Great Lakes problem because biological pollution travels both directions on this invasive species superhighway.

Not only do rapacious Asian carp threaten to unleash havoc on the lakes’ multibillion-dollar fishery, but some troublemakers such as pipe-clogging zebra and quagga mussels already have ridden canal waters in the opposite direction — out of the Great Lakes and into the Mississippi basin. From there they have hitched rides on recreational boats towed over the Rocky Mountains and now plague irrigation and hydroelectric systems across the West.

— By Dan Egan, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

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