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Best Practices, Cities, Urban Design

Reversing Rivers & Fighting Fish

I was lucky enough listen to a talk given by the inimitable Jeanne Gang recently (known most famously for the ‘Wave Building’ or Aqua Tower in Chicago). There was a long section on one issue she felt very strongly about – the pollution of the Chicago River. It got me thinking about Chennai, and the smelly grey elephant in the room people have stopped talking about, possibly out of sheer exasperation – our beloved Cooum. I began to wonder what we could learn from the analysis of Studio Gang’s project, whether I could draw any parallels between the two or not.

A few basics about the city of Chicago and its geography – the city sits on the banks of the Lake Michigan, one of the 5 Great Lakes in North America. I know it’s extremely large because you cannot actually see across it from Chicago to the city across the lake; but Wikipedia helpfully tells me its dimensions are 494 km by 190 km. There are three rivers that drain the area – the Chicago River (which as its name suggests, runs through the city), the Des Plaines river that runs West; and the Calumet River that runs in the South.

Before 1900, the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan- draining as it did through a largely flat piece of land, it was shallow and slow-moving. The city began emptying its sewage into the river, which then drained into Lake Michigan – the primary source of drinking water for the city. As you can imagine, this was an unhygienic and dangerous situation. Besides this day-to-day problem of contamination; anytime the river flooded, cholera, typhoid and other water-borne diseases ravaged the city. The other issue was transportation. Chicago has historically been an important transportation hub, and its network waterways needed to become more efficient so as to complement the railroads and port.


Map from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, sourced from dailyapple.blogspot.com (Please click on this map to view a larger image)


And so it happened that in an engineering feat, a system of locks and dams were used to reverse the flow of the Chicago River – so that it flowed outwards from Lake Michigan, and into a newly constructed canal called the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. This canal flowed southwest, meeting the Des Plaines River and carrying waste away from the city, into a system of rivers that eventually flowed out into the sea. The Calumet River was also connected to the CSSC via the Calumet-Sag channel, to increase the transport network in the area. The entire process from planning to construction happened between 1887 and 1922.

Schematic Diagram of Locks used to maintain the water level difference Source: Image by D.M. Short, Wikipedia

A dam is used to maintain an artificial difference in water level along the course of a river. A lock is a system that allows boats to travel through this level difference.



The flipside of this inspiring feat of engineering is as always, environmental damage. All the rivers I have mentioned are no longer fit for human contact – they are chock full of sewage, industrial waste and hazardous chemicals. Not wanting to pump chlorine into the region’s water systems, the City of Chicago does not disinfect its sewage. Which means the river is full of…shit. Literally.

Other pollution horror stories have come and gone through history. In the early 1900s, the south branch of the Chicago river came to be grimly known as ‘Bubby Creek’. It flowed alongside the meat packaging district of Chicago, and became the dumping place for entrails, blood and remains from the abattoir. The decomposing waste began making the river bubble with Methane & Hydrogen Sulphide. Even now, the length of the various canals and rivers of the area are populated by signs warning that the water is NOT fit for human contact. The continuous inflow of water from Lake Michigan carries sewage away from the city fast enough for it not to be a problem for inhabitants.

Chicago River - Not suitable for any Human Body Contact Source: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/govt/story.aspx?id=156707

Chicago River – Not suitable for any Human Body Contact
Source: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/govt/story.aspx?id=156707


Besides the fact that several thousands of miles of waterways are basically infectious mega-sewers, the locals are now facing a new problem. In 2009, an aggressive non-native species of fish known as the Asian carp,  escaped from farms into waterways. This shouldn’t be a huge problem, except this fish has the talent to swim upstream, and past the dams apparently –they are working their way upto Lake Michigan. They could completely destroy the natural ecosystem of the Great Lakes if they find their way in – they eat upto 3 times their bodyweight every day, and could exhaust algae in the Great Lakes, starving out local species and depleting oxygen supplies. Did I mention they are humungous? And that they can fly? (Sort of. They can jump up to 10 feet vertically). They grow on average to 4 feet in length and weigh about 20 kilos (although the biggest can weigh upto 50kg). They fly out the water when startled and have been known to destroy motors on boats and injure fishermen by falling on them.


Has this started to sound like a comedy sketch on the Folly of Human Arrogance yet? Local Authorities announced in 2010 that they would consider re-reversing the river, or closing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. There have also been parallel efforts to build the Deep Tunnel – a network of sewers 350 KM underground to carry away sewage and help in flood control. This mega-project was started in the 1970s – and might not be completed till 2029.

Jeanne Gang, who has been keen on green solutions to these problems for a while, suggests a more moderate and less ham-fisted approach. She advocates treating the sewage that drains into the Chicago river, so that it might realize its potential as a waterfront for people to use. On the environmental side, the canal is ideally closed and the area is allowed to re-establish the natural level divide between the Lake and River system. She further suggests that the area be allowed to develop into a wetland, so bio-agents might help in certain stages of water treatment. These solutions sound sensitive and cautious – and also stop the City of Chicago from flushing 2 billion gallons of water from Lake Michigan every single day.

You can read her entire interview here. It is illuminating and inspiring. And she’s building something in Hyderabad apparently!



What might we take back from this entire exercise while dealing with our very own super-polluted waterway? Flush it with seawater? Improve sewage treatment and impose penalties on industrial miscreants? Fill the entire thing with mud and construct more more MORE Luxury Housing. (I’m joking. Don’t come after me).

Or maybe we should just thank our lucky stars we aren’t being invaded by Flying Godzilla Demon Fish.

Please leave your thoughts & comments below!


One thought on “Reversing Rivers & Fighting Fish

  1. I’ve never seen flying fish, that too such large ones, before. I think the best approach is not to allow waste into waterways in the first place. Human waste should go back to the ground and get composted, and chemicals should be replaced with biodegradable products/enzymes. It’s always better to tackle the problem at the source and not interfere with natural course of rivers, etc. Even building dams affects riverine ecosystem so much and we consistently turn a blind eye.

    Destination Infinity

    Posted by Destination Infinity | July 19, 2014, 8:46 am

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