Ravaging and Revitalizing: The Story of the Northern Illinois Watershed – Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Altered Landscapes

As tribes were pushed west, European settlers began to alter the land to their benefit. Rivers were dredged, factories and mills dumped contaminants into the waterways below, and increased sewage waste from a quickly growing population proved a serious health issue to the surrounding watershed. Without clean water, plants died, animals were forced to find new ecosystems away from agricultural, industrial, and commercial development, and the environment took a backseat to economic advancement.

The city of Chicago experienced unprecedented growth. From an official population of 4,470 in 1840, the area passed 100,000 by 1860, 500,000 by 1880, and a million by 1890. In the second largest city in the United States, development was in full swing, and it came with its fair share of environmental problems.

Population growth in northeastern Illinois, 1850-2010 (from Karstensen and others, 2013).

With nearby Lake Michigan just two feet below the riverbanks, effective drainage was nearly impossible and sewage and other contaminants flowed into the area’s rivers, creating health hazards across the region. In 1834, the first attempt to solve the sanitation problem included a drainage ditch dug to carry wastewater into the Chicago River, but the river could not cleanse itself of the sewage due to the high level of Lake Michigan. This continued to be an issue throughout the 1800s, as the high lake level proved to be a health hazard every time a hard storm hit, carrying the surrounding area’s pollution and sewage into the watershed, flowing from river to river throughout the region.

“The issue was more than simply too many people,” explains John Witte, Civil Engineering Practice Lead at WBK Engineering in St. Charles, Illinois. “The problem with rapid land development is two-fold; not only does it mean there are more people producing more by-products, there’s also less permeable land available as the vegetation that would normally assist in the absorption and flow of excess water has been cut away, replaced by concrete and buildings.” The Chicago area soon found its breaking point as there was no place left for the water to be directed.

In 1879, following another major instance of sewage and contaminants pouring into the water, the Farm Drainage Act was enacted, creating “drainage districts” to designate areas for water to drain. By 1929, with Chicago’s population having surpassed three million, there were 88 drainage districts covering 177,595 acres within the Chicago River, Little Calumet River, Des Plaines River, DuPage River, and Fox River basins. By 1971, there were 180.

By the 1960s, a new solution was presented. The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) resulted in 109 miles of tunnels within the Mainstem, Calumet, Des Plaines, and Upper Des Plaines systems, capturing 85% of the combined sewer overflows which had been discharging into rivers and streams.

Local, state, and federal agencies and individuals have become increasingly aware of the unmitigated impacts of urbanization on drainage and flooding. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District implemented the first stormwater detention ordinance in 1972. This ordinance required new developments to detain a portion of the increased runoff and to restrict the outlet capacity of the detention basin to a predevelopment discharge. However, flood damages continued to wreak havoc on the region, causing home and property damage as water levels rose during great storms, halting public services and interrupting daily life far too often.

In the 1980s, significantly damaging storms in back-to-back years, 1986 and 1987, pushed public awareness of the continued problems enough for the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation authorizing the formation of regionwide stormwater management programs. This change in philosophy, to more forward-thinking, proactive measures, allows for stormwater management planning, watershed planning, regulation of construction within floodplain areas, and new sources of funding to manage local drainage and flooding problems.

Witte explains the importance of a new way of looking at the issue. “If you wait until a large storm hits before you begin to manage the rising water levels, you’re too late. Weather is a constant and not something you can control. And with climate change,” adds Witte, “it’s becoming increasingly unpredictable, so it’s paramount to have a plan for managing the water before it’s damaging homes and spreading pollutants.”

Emphasis on proactively caring for the land, rather than chasing solutions after the fact, is the first step to returning the Illinois watershed to the vibrant ecosystem it was centuries before when Native tribes emphasized a relationship of reciprocity between the land and its inhabitants.

Thankfully, priorities have begun to shift, and eyes are being opened to our ability to give back to the earth, such as helping a polluted, stagnant swamp to be restored to a lush, natural environment once again flush with wildlife.

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