Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal: Wikis


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Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (at the time named the Chicago Drainage Canal) being built
Flow of water before and after construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal
Lock and dam at Lockport

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, historically known as the Chicago Drainage Canal, is the only shipping link between the Great Lakes (specifically Lake Michigan by way of the Chicago River) and the Mississippi River system, by way of the Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers. The canal also carries Chicago's treated sewage into the Des Plaines River. Before completion of the canal in 1900, the sewage of Chicago was dumped into Lake Michigan, the city's drinking water supply. The canal is part of the Chicago Wastewater System, operated by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. The system has been named a Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is 28 miles (45 kilometers) long, 202 feet (62 m) wide, and 24 feet (7.3 m) deep. Prior to its construction, the Illinois and Michigan Canal connected the same waterways for boat travel.


Reasons for construction

Early Chicago sewage systems discharged directly into Lake Michigan or into the Chicago River, which itself flowed into the lake. The city’s water supply also came from the lake, through water intake cribs located two miles offshore. There were fears that sewage could infiltrate the water supply, leading to typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery. During a tremendous storm in 1885, the rainfall washed refuse from the river far out into the lake (although reports of a 1885 cholera epidemic are untrue), spurring a panic that a future similar storm would cause a huge epidemic in Chicago. The only reason for the storm not causing such a catastrophic event was because the weather was cooler than normal. The Chicago Sanitary District (now The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District) was created by the Illinois legislature in 1889 in response to this close call.[1]

Planning and construction, 1887–1922

By 1887, it was decided to reverse the flow of the Chicago River through civil engineering. Engineer Isham Oliver noted that a ridge about 12 miles from the lake shore divided the Mississippi River drainage system from the Great Lakes drainage system. A plan soon emerged to cut through that ridge and carry waste water away from the lake, through the Des Plaines and Illinois rivers, to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. In 1889, the Illinois General Assembly created the Sanitary District of Chicago (now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago) to carry out the plan.

The canal, linking the south branch of the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River at Lockport, was opened on January 17, 1900, in advance of an application by the Missouri Attorney General for an injunction against the opening. [2][3][4] Further construction from 1903 to 1907 extended the canal to Joliet. The rate of flow is controlled by the Lockport Powerhouse, sluice gates at Chicago Harbor and at the O'Brien Lock in the Calumet River, and also by pumps at Wilmette Harbor. Two more canals were later built to add to the system: the North Shore Channel in 1910, and the Cal-Sag Channel in 1922.

Construction of the Ship and Sanitary Canal was the largest earth-moving operation that had been undertaken in North America up to that time. It was also notable for training a generation of engineers, many of whom later worked on the Panama Canal.

Diversion of water from Great Lakes

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is designed to work by taking water from Lake Michigan and discharging it into the Mississippi River watershed. At the time of construction, these diversions were not yet regulated. Today, diversions from the Great Lakes system are regulated by an international treaty with Canada, through the International Joint Commission, and by governors of the Great Lakes states.

There is some dispute over how much water is actually being diverted by the canal. Recently, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign built a numerical model of the Chicago River system. The resulting three-dimensional, hydrodynamic simulation suggested that density currents may be causing a bi-directional flow in the Chicago River during winter seasons. In the model, at the surface, the river was flowing east to west, away from Lake Michigan, as expected. But deep below, near the riverbed, water was traveling west to east, toward the lake. This flow could be pulling some water out of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. A summary of the research team's findings was published in the Spring/Summer 2005 edition of the CEE Alumni Association Newsletter.

Asian carp and the canal

On November 20, 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that a single sample of DNA from Asian carp had been found above the electric barrier that had been constructed in the canal in an attempt to prevent them from migrating into the Great Lakes. The silver carp, also known as the flying carp, has migrated through the Mississippi, and could possibly make its way into the Great Lakes.[5] The carp can grow to 50 or more pounds, and is noted for its jumping above water. Ironically, the carp were first introduced with the blessing of the EPA in the 1970s to help remove algae from catfish farms in Arkansas. The carp have escaped the farms and migrated up the Mississippi River system. They now threaten to enter the Great Lakes through the man made canal connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River water shed. The carp displace native species of fish by filter feeding and removing the bottom of the food chain for indigenous species.

On December 2, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal closed, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) began applying a fish poison, rotenone, in an effort to kill Asian carp north of Lockport. Although no Asian carp were found in the two months of commercial and electrofishing, the massive fish kill did discover a single carp.[6]

On December 21, 2009, Michigan State Attorney General Mike Cox filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking the immediate closure of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan. The state of Illinois and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which constructed the Canal, are co-defendants in the lawsuit.[7]

In response to the Michigan lawsuit, on January 5, 2010, Illinois State Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a counter-suit with the U.S. Supreme Court requesting that it reject Michigan’s claims. Siding with the State of Illinois, both the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and The American Waterways Operators have filed affidavits, arguing that closing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal would upset the movement of millions of tons of vital shipments of iron ore, coal, grain and other cargo, totaling more than $1.5 billion a year, and contribute to the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands of jobs.[8] However, Michigan along with several other Great Lakes states argue that the sport and commercial fishery and tourism associated with the fishery of the entire Great Lakes region is estimated at $7 billion a year, and impacts the economies of all Great Lakes states and Canada.

On January 19, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the request for a preliminary injunction closing the canal. [9]

See also


  1. ^ The Straight Dope: Did 90,000 people die of typhoid fever and cholera in Chicago in 1885?
  2. ^ "The Chicago Canal Opened"; "Permanent Injunction Asked" The New York Times, Jan. 18, 1900, p8
  3. ^ "The Chicago Drainage Canal", The Outlook 64: 9, January 6 1900,, retrieved 2009-07-30 
  4. ^ Baker, M. N. (February 10 1900), "The Chicago Drainage Canal", The Outlook 64: 355–360,, retrieved 2009-07-30 
  5. ^ Belkin, Douglas (20 November 2009), Asian Carp could Hurt Boating, Fishing, Wall Street Journal,, retrieved 2009-11-21 
  6. ^ Garcia, John (03 December 2009), One Asian carp found in canal after fish kill, ABC Affiliate WLS-TV,, retrieved 2010-01-07 
  7. ^ Hood, Joel (22 December 2009), Fight to keep Asian carp out of Great Lakes reaches Supreme Court, Los Angeles Times,,0,7502213.story, retrieved 2010-01-07 
  8. ^ Merrion, Paul (04 January 2010), Illinois fights back as states seek carp-blocking canal closures, Crain’s Chicago Business,, retrieved 2010-01-07 .
  9. ^ Barnes, Robert (2010-01-20), Washington Post 

External links

Coordinates: 41°42′18″N 87°56′02″W / 41.705°N 87.93389°W / 41.705; -87.93389



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