Against the current

Josh Ellis thinks the Asian-carp invasion can inspire long-term solutions for Chicago’s water problems.

By Steven Yaccino
Photography by Dan Dry

Chicago is the only city in the region that doesn’t return its water to the Great Lakes.

Josh Ellis, AM’06, won’t touch the Chicago River. Despite modest improvements to the city’s sewage-treatment process over the past 30 years, he’s heard too many stories about overboard kayakers getting staph infections and stomachs pumped. “This river was nearly dead before the 1972 Clean Water Act,” Ellis says, kneeling down to point out a school of minnows as morning traffic from Lake Shore Drive rumbles overhead. “Just think how much more we can do if we’re willing to take the chance.”

Turn on any faucet in Chicago, and it flows with clean, treated, Lake Michigan water. But follow it down the drain—from sinks, showers, toilets, streets—and the sewage eventually gets dumped into the Chicago River before flowing out to the Illinois River and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

As a program associate with the nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council since 2006, Ellis has been urging policy makers to seek long-term solutions that address water quality in the Chicago River, as well as future supply shortages, storm-water management, and waterborne freight.

Lately, however, Asian carp—an exotic fish whose native habitat, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, resembles the Great Lakes waters—have overrun those conversations.

Hypothetically speaking, if Ellis were to dive in the river and float for a while, he’d pass an overpopulation of the huge, invasive fish forging their way north, dodging electric barriers and gallons of toxic chemicals, toward the Great Lakes. In late 2009 researchers found traces of carp DNA in a canal connected to the Chicago River, sparking fears from other Great Lakes states that the species would soon inundate one of the most valuable aquatic regions in the country, disrupting its food chain and entire ecosystem. With no natural predators, big appetites, and the ability to reproduce rapidly, the carp could devastate the native fish population.

No carp—which can weigh up to 100 pounds and can grow to a length of more than four feet—have actually been found in Lake Michigan; they’ve been found in droves in the rivers that flow into it. But the fish have infested headlines and the minds of regional legislators. Legal challenges by the State of Michigan last February tried forcing Chicago to close the locks connecting Lake Michigan to its rivers—a move denied twice by the U.S. Supreme Court without comment. New ideas to block the fish have surfaced, including a plan to ship some 30 million pounds of the carp to China, where it is a delicacy, signed into law by Illinois governor Pat Quinn this summer. 

Ellis worries that Asian carp have become a red herring. “A short-term solution [to invasive species] will dampen the flames and calm people down,” says Ellis, whose master’s degree merged environmental policy at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies with an understanding of Mesopotamian river politics at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “Closing the locks might keep the fish out, maybe, but it would do nothing for the sustainability of the region’s water supply or improving our transportation systems.”

Instead, Ellis—who’s from Brentwood, New Hampshire, where his father led the local conservation commission—wants to update the city’s sewage-treatment process and re-reverse its rivers so they flow back into Lake Michigan. In 1900 Chicago first reversed its river currents by digging canals to carry sewage away from the lake. A century later, Ellis argues, the city should update its sewage-treatment systems, eliminating the need to send sewage away from the city. Then Chicago could build permanent barriers to separate its water supply from southern tributaries, like the Mississippi River, keeping unwanted fish and invasive species from reaching the Great Lakes and solving future water-management problems.

One solution would involve better management of the city’s rainwater runoff. Chicago doesn’t use its massive accumulation of stormwater, which enters the sewer system and exits the city. In 2005 that water averaged about 588 million gallons a day—twice as much as Chicago’s suburbs extract from dwindling underground aquifers, Ellis says. “We’re almost literally flushing it down the toilet,” he says. Chicago is the only city in the Great Lakes region that doesn’t return its water to the lakes.

In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court capped how much water Illinois could divert from Lake Michigan each year: 3,200 cubic feet per second. Today the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management supplies more than 5 million people in 125 municipalities with Lake Michigan water. According to some estimates, shrinking aquifers and an increasing Cook County population could raise demand for water by 64 percent by 2050. This growing demand would strain the water supply, Ellis says, putting the region at a disadvantage for attracting new businesses and residents and for maintaining healthy ecosystems. “There are still a thousand details to work out, but we reversed the river once; we can come up with engineering solutions to solve all of these problems at the same time,” Ellis explains. “There’s not just one issue at stake here.”

The river re-reversal, which Ellis and his colleagues at the Metropolitan Planning Council believe might be the city’s best option, would be expensive and go against the flow in a state where budget deficits and midterm elections are on politicians’ minds. Still, Ellis has been working with other nonprofits and government partners to brainstorm how to win over local, state, and national leaders.

His efforts seem to be paying off. In May, 13 U.S. senators signed a letter urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to implement measures to prevent invasive species from moving up the Illinois River to the Great Lakes. The letter came just days after federal agencies and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources led a poisoning operation that surfaced 100,000 pounds of dead fish in a Chicago canal. They found no Asian carp, shifting attention to Indiana rivers, where the species has in fact been detected.

The letter called for swift action, citing concerns such as wastewater, water quality, and freight traffic. “I don’t think that conversation is going away,” says Ellis, happy to see his message gain momentum. “It might not be in the papers as much, but it’s moving up to a higher level. It’s starting to become the long-term discussion it needs to be.”


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