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Separation anxiety, Part 4

I'm of the opinion that something of historical significance happened today, and that years from now the Chicago region, Great Lakes community, and Mississippi River basin will look back Jan. 31, 2012, as a turning point toward something fundamentally new. Today, after close to two years of painstaking research, lots of trial and error, and an incredibly sincere and dedicated effort to educate and solicit input from a very diverse group of stakeholders (of which I was one, see reflections on our first, second and third meetings), the Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative released Restoring the Natural Divide: Separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basins in the Chicago Area Waterway System. It is a bold and visionary statement of what is possible, and for that I applaud them.  

The final product is what it was always intended to be—a vision (actually, three of them) for what hydrological separation could look like, what physical and operational changes would be necessary, and what the whole thing might cost. It is a not a plan per se. There is no step one, step two, step three. Instead, Restoring the Natural Divide assesses the benefits of a physical separation—literally a wall, or more likely, a combination of walls in several places, to block the flow of water, and thus waterborne organisms—as well as the transportation, recreation, and water resource management ramifications of that separation.  

Restoring the Natural Divide is the best and most comprehensive effort to date to lay out exactly what sorts of measures the Chicago region would have to take to mitigate any of the potentially harmful consequences of altering the current water management system. One can disagree whether the benefits of separation are worth the costs, and one can disagree with the premise that hydrological separation is the best/only true long-term solution to interbasin invasive species movement, but having this report in hand significantly increases our ability to have informed debate on those questions. The public summary is a very readable 28 pages. Of course, if you need to brush up on the whole waterways-invasive species-separation thing, then check out our animated video, "A Fork in the River."

And believe me, there are plenty of potentially harmful consequences, all of which could be overcome in time, but there would be a period of increased risk until mitigation steps were fully in place. For instance... our region's current sewage and stormwater management system, in the most simplistic terms, is based on the premise of sending those waters away from Lake Michigan. Given that the lake is the drinking water source for roughly 40 percent of Illinois, and that it is a major recreational asset and invaluable ecosystem in its own right, that system made a lot of sense when it was designed. That system, however, is based on being able to move water (and everything in it) through the Chicago Waterway System. In some of the hydrological separation scenarios posited in Restoring the Natural Divide, several wastewater treatment plants and much of Cook County's stormwater system would no longer be able to discharge downstream, and instead the water would be returned to the lake. If the water is dirty, then the lake becomes dirtier, which is bad. If the water is clean, then this is a great benefit, because now Illinois would be returning back to the lake some of the water we legally divert from the lake today. That would be a good thing. So the mitigation steps required to overcome this potentially negative consequence of hydrological separation, i.e. increased risk of contaminating the lake, would be improving our wastewater treatment process and reducing the total volume of stormwater runoff. Both are far easier said than done (and both are things we should be doing regardless of hydrological separation), but this report does a very good job of articulating what would need to be done in order to make separation feasible. It's a great stepping stone for what happens next...

... and what does happen next?  The Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative started with the premise that the lake and river system should be separated, and then dug into whether we could, how we might, and what we need to do to make sure we don't cause a bunch of other problems by doing so. It was an opportunity for all the stakeholders to consider—in a purely hypothetical fashion—how they might continue to fish, swim, move cargo, sail, and so on, in an alternate universe where the waterways operated differently. Unfortunatley, a lot of the back and forth at our stakeholder advisory committee meetings missed that point, and we spent a lot of time bickering about the "should we" or "shouldn't we," and so there was no consensus among the stakeholders as to how we might separate if we had to.

Ultimately, the federal government, whether it be Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, or the White House, is going to decide whether we will have to separate the two ecosystems. "Should" is essentially irrelevant. Regardless of the divided stakeholders in the immediate Chicago region, where much of the infrastructure investment and operational changes would need to be made, I think there's sufficient political desire in the rest of the Great Lakes region and Mississippi River basin, as well as in Canada, that eventually the federal answer will be "thou shalt separate." Certainly the central lesson of Restoring the Natural Divide gives credence to that, because the biggest take away from the report is that separation is possible, at a reasonable cost, with lots of direct and indirect benefits, and a series of foreseeable and resolvable negative effects. That would seem to support a federal decree of "thou shalt separate."

And if (or when) that happens, then the hypothetical question of how we would separate the lake and river systems becomes a lot less hypothetical. But we have some time, and so it would seem to behoove the immediate Chicago region to take the results of Restoring the Natural Divide, identify the preferred scenario, and figure out in detail what we would need to do if our hand were forced. Nobody argues about whether we should have hurricanes or not, or whether the starting quarterback should get hurt or not. Those are pointless arguments. Instead, as we very painfully learned from Hurricane Katrina, and less importantly/more annoyingly from the Chicago Bears 2011 season, prudent organizations develop hurricane evacuation plans and make sure to have a decent back-up quarterback on the roster. The Chicago region doesn't have an agreed-upon plan if the federal government declares "thou shalt separate," and we need one. It's the prudent thing to do. Restoring the Natural Divide is a crucial step toward that happening, and I have a hunch that it will be received well enough by elected officials in other states and in the halls of Washington, D.C., that it force even the most reluctant participants to the table.    

The Chicago region may never have to change a thing. The "we shoulds" may never rally enough support to affect any sort of change. Similarly, Jay Cutler may never miss another game. But hoping nothing will change, or that everyone will forget about invasive species, or that Caleb Hanie will become the next Steve Young... it's all delusional, counter-productive, and irresponsible.

And so I hope today is a turning point, not necessarily the beginning of eventual hydrological separation, but the beginning of the Chicago region taking this situation seriously and planning—just planning—for a possible future in which our waterways, ports, parks, beaches, and treatment plants may have to operate differently (hopefully better!) than they do today. 

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