Monday, June 11, 2012

Chicago: A Look Back at June 11, 1952

The Chicago Harbor Lock as it appears today (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Photo)

Found on the pages of The Chicago Tribune on June 11 of 1952. . .

Word came from Washington, D. C. on this date that the House Public Works Committee had approved legislation to increase the flow of diverted Lake Michigan water into the Chicago River to 3,500 feet per second.  Representatives Sheehan and Kluczynski said they would now concentrate their efforts on getting the Rules Committee to approve the measure for early consideration by the House of Representatives.

Anthony A. Olis, the President of the Chicago Sanitary District, said of the victory, “For years it was assumed that because of the Supreme Court ruling there was no further hope of increasing the diversion rate.  We set our sights at a rate of 3,500 cubic feet a second, and sought action by congress.  Even tho the increase voted is not as great as we asked it shows what can be done.”

It was hoped that the greater diversion rate would help to clean up waterways of the Mississippi watershed while having marginal effect on lake levels.  Mr. Olis hoped that the move would help the Chicago River to “become the sportsman’s paradise that it was many years ago.”

Construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (Google Image)
Plans were afoot for an even more ambitious plan.  Albert J. Meserow, the counsel for the Protection of Great Lakes Property, Inc. said that his organization would be asking the senate to boost the diversion rate to 10,000 cubic feet per second, which was what the Sanitary and Ship Canal was designed to handle when the digging started back in 1892.

After the Chicago River was reversed in 1900 through the 1920’s water diversion from Lake Michigan increased steadily to a maximum of 8,500 cubic feet per second (285 cubic meters per second).  This raised the alarm in Canada and states that bordered the Great Lakes, and, not surprisingly, they protested.

In 1924 Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York, later joined by every other state bordering the Great Lakes, brought suit against Illinois in the Supreme Court.  The complaining parties alleged that the diversion of lake water in Chicago had lowered the levels in Lake Michigan, as well as Lake Huron, Erie and Ontario by more than six inches, “harming navigation and causing serious injury to the complainant states’ citizens and property.” [Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, Wayne State University]

Charles Evan Hughes (Google Image)
Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes, a former Supreme Court Justice, led a special investigation of the problem and found that Chicago’s diversion of the river had lowered the level of Lakes Erie and Ontario by five inches and Lakes Michigan and Huron by six inches, causing damage “to navigation and commercial interests, to structures, to the convenience of summer resorts, to fishing and hunting grounds, to public parks and other enterprises, and to riparian property generally.”

The Supreme Court found in favor of the complainant states, and referred the case back to Mr. Hughes for his recommendation, which was to implement a phased reduction in Chicago diversion, allowing the city time to build adequate sewage treatment facilities to compensate for the reduced flow of the waterway system. 

The only practical way of reducing the flow of Lake Michigan water into the Chicago River was to build a lock, and on September 7, 1938 the lock was finished, and the diversion of lake water was severely limited.  The lock was begun in 1935 and, financed with the aid of a Public Works Administration loan, cost $2,500,000 to build.  It measured 600 feet long, 80 feet wide and 24 feet deep.

The hoped-for diversion bill that was looked upon with such optimism in 1952 was not approved.  It wasn’t until June, 1967 that the states bordering the Great Lakes signed a pact that allowed 3.200 cubic feet per second of lake water to be diverted into the Chicago River.  The Chicago Sanitary District was to use nearly half of that amount for sewage treatment.

Chicago Lock, separating Lake Michigan & the Chicago River (Google Image)
Today, the Chicago diversion of lake water consists of three related components.  First, and most obvious, 62 percent of the diversion provides the water supply for 5.7 million thirsty residents of northeast Illinois.  The second component, about 18 percent, consists of a direct diversion of lake water into the Illinois River and Canal system for the purpose of optimizing river navigation and improving water quality in the Chicago metropolitan area.  Finally, the third component, about 20 percent, consists of storm water runoff that would otherwise flow into the Chicago River and on into Lake Michigan, but which now flows westward into the Mississippi watershed.

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