Chicago view: Is the city’s influence on Great Lakes policy justified?



By Gary Wilson

One of the things I never understood when Asian Carp DNA was discovered near Lake Michigan in November  of 2009 is why the federal, state of Illinois and local authorities didn’t act swiftly to temporarily close the locks leading to Lake Michigan.

The locks  are the last line of defense and closing them would have been the most basic of precautions, given the unknowns,  as the experts tried to figure out the magnitude of the problem. Even the most strident opponents of closure, the barge industry, could have understood a temporary closing.

But  the locks remained open and were presented as  being “leaky” and not really an impediment to the advancing carp.

That singular decision damaged the credibility of the agencies charged to repel the carp advance and their action that followed was looked at with skepticism.

The rest of the region clearly didn’t buy the “leaky” explanation and legal action ensued which continues today.

The result?

Now the federal government, Illinois and mostly Chicago are faced with the unintended consequence of having a spotlight put on their stewardship of the Chicago waterways system and how they interact with the rest of the  region.

The region’s political capital

Chicago is one of four U.S. cities that would qualify as world class if such a ranking existed.  New York, Washington and San Francisco are the others.

Chicago skyline backed by Lake Michigan

It is a Midwest city like no other with its dynamic economy, vibrant city life and  beautiful and “forever open, free, and clear” lakefront thanks to the foresight years ago of  city planner Daniel Burnham.

When I  attend Great Lakes conferences in Chicago, I frequently hear participants remark how they wish their town had Chicago’s attributes.

Essentially, Chicago is the economic, cultural, and de facto political capital of the Great Lakes region.

It exerts much more influence on the well-being of those five lakes than is justified by its meager few miles of shoreline or by how little of greater Chicago is even in the Great Lakes basin.


Chicago is home to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program office, the Council of Great Lakes Governors and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

The top adviser for the Great Lakes to the EPA administrator lives in Chicago. The Army Corps of Engineers, which currently touches so many issues, has a base here.

And  the first president to really focus on Great Lakes restoration, Barack Obama, is from Chicago. His former chief of staff is now running for mayor of the city.

Legal issues? Well, the aforementioned lawsuit on lock closure and broader issues is in front of a federal judge in, yes, Chicago.

The not-for-profit  Alliance for the Great Lakes is located in Chicago, as is a Great Lakes office for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Concentrated power

Is that concentration of policymaking, influence and power good for the entire region?

Well, that’s my question and I think it is a fair one worth examining.

Before Asian Carp were discovered at the door-step of Lake Michigan, I don’t believe many of us knew of the influence Chicago organizations had over the Great Lakes. If we did, we probably didn’t care.

But that has changed as the carp crisis has  spotlighted the Chicago and Illinois power structures.

Now, Chicago’s role in Great Lakes management  and its own environmental practicies are under examination.

A few examples:

  • Always a sore point but begrudingly accepted is the fact that Chicago is allowed, by Supreme Court decree, to divert  2 billion gallons of water daily from Lake Michigan. This happens while smaller communities have to jump over hurdles and do logistical gymnastics to have access to a few million gallons if they are barely outside the Great Lakes basin.
  • Chicago is the only major city that doesn’t disinfect its sewage – the sewage in the Chicago River which flows to St. Louis.
  • Toss in Chicago’s staunch refusal to close its locks as demanded by its neighbors and you start to see a  pattern.  Chicago may not be so world class when it comes to Great Lakes and water stewardship.

In addition to the lawsuits, the region’s editorial boards have opposed how  Illinois-based  agencies have handled the carp advance. References have been made to the area’s reputation for bare-knuckled politics and use of clout.

To put it bluntly, the rest of the Great Lakes region isn’t pleased with what they perceive to be favorable treatment  for a city and state that have only a dot of Great Lakes shore.

Are they right?

Welcomed scrutiny

Are Chicago and Illinois receiving preferential treatment on the carp issue to the detriment of the other Great Lakes states?

Do greater Chicago and Illinois have too much influence over the Great Lakes given their minimal geographical footprint?

I’m not  much of a conspiracy theorist so I have my doubts. But I also think it’s a reasonable question to ask.

No matter what happens with Asian Carp, their advance toward Lake Michigan has had the unintended but positive consequence of shining a light on the impact that Chicago and Illinois have on the Great Lakes.

We should all welcome the scrutiny.

12 thoughts on “Chicago view: Is the city’s influence on Great Lakes policy justified?

  1. Thank you for the article! And no – Chicago should not have as much clout as it does in this decision. This is an issue that affects millions of people (including future generations) throughout the GL basin.

    Why is it either or??? We should fix all of the problems – work to engineer Chicago safe water treatment disposal and better flood control AND protect the both Miss and GL basins from further interbasin transmissions of invasive species.

  2. But has Michigan and the other surrounding states justified closing the locks?
    Michigan’s sportfishing industry is worth somewhere between $6 and $10 billion per year. Is a few million dollars commerce really worth risking tens of billions in revenue made by the rest of the states that have a real stake in it?
    The commerce of the canal appears to be primarily pleasure boats. I’ve seen elevator systems that would be ideal for lifting boats over a blockage and they could probably do it at a profit.
    I just hope the people of Chicago will look at the future. Do they want to work with the rest of us to prosper now or do they want to support us in the future.

  3. Great piece Gary.

    Regarding disinfection, it is really important to make the distinction between the City of Chicago and the regional water regulators, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. MWRD operates the water treatment plants that are returning undisinfected effluent into the Chicago River. The USEPA, State of Illinois and City of Chicago are all on record pushing for that to change.

    And, in fact, it might change soon. The issue stands as the longest fight in the history of the Illinois Pollution board where the NGO community (including NRDC) has joined with an array of governmental entities to force MWRD to clean up. It is our view and IEPA’s that the Clean Water Act requires disinfection.

  4. Now that we have identified Chicago’s less than exemplary citizenship and undue impact on the great lakes how do we address this and get to a more positive long term approach to maintaining the viability of the great lakes? It would seem to take a strong commitment to positive action and a lot of money that few are probably willing to sign-up for. Not the most optimistic outlook.

  5. Dave,

    Thanks for engaging on the issues.

    Regarding your comment that Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox may have been motivated by politics when he brought the Asian Carp suit as he was running for governor.

    Cox was defeated in the primary election yet he continued the suit. He is now out of office but his successor just reaffirmed that he will continue to pursue the legal action initiated by Cox and four other Great Lakes states.

    Elected officials doing things for political reasons is an all to common occurrence. But in this case I think the two Michigan Attorney’s General are motivated by trying to protect a critical natural resource for their constituents.

  6. Robert,

    Michael Hawthorne at the Chicago Tribune does an excellent job of reporting on environmental issues related to greater Chicago.

    Here’s the opening paragraph of a report he did last August on Chicago’s sewage treatment practices and the Chicago River.

    “In virtually every other city in the nation, it would be illegal to pump out partially treated sewage teeming with the amount of disease-causing bacteria that churns endlessly into the Chicago River.”

    And a link to the full article.,0,3243415.story

    I don’t know if NRDC has taken any legal action on the issue but I do know that they are tracking it. I’ll pass your inquiry on to their Chicago staff.

    Thanks for your comments.

  7. NO Chicago should not have an influence over the rest of the lakes and As a world class city and cultural center of the area, it should be more concerned. We shouldn’t back down until the close the locks, and Chicago shouldn’t be allowed to divert water.

  8. “Chicago is the only major city that doesn’t disinfect its sewage — the sewage in the Chicago River which flows to St. Louis.”
    Actually, there was another Supreme Court case, in 1909. The evidence was that with the reversed flow and lake water, the river water was cleaner than it was when the Des Plaines was stagnant.
    And the sewage is certainly treated, if not sterilized. Your statement is misleading because it makes it seem like the sewage untreated.

    “Toss in Chicago’s staunch refusal to close its locks as demanded by its neighbors and you start to see a pattern. Chicago may not be so world class when it comes to Great Lakes and water stewardship.”
    Another kind of misleading statement. As the court pointed out in denying the preliminary injunction in December, Water Reclamation District, Army Corps of Engineers and the other bodies working on the issue continue to take more than 30 different, active steps to continue to block the carp. There was only one carp above the barrier, not in the Lake and it wasn’t really DNA, it was eDNA, somewhere in the “environment” comprising the water. Don’t confuse the complex issues with what people think from watching too much CSI on television. Although there have been several carp seen in Lake Erie, there is only circumstantial evidence that they have been close to Lake Michigan, and the eDNA could actually have come from someone’s lunch.

    So why not worry about carp in Lake Erie? And why not worry about Detroit’s dredging the river and Michigan runoff when it comes to “stewardship”? Because it’s a popular political issue for an attorney general who wants to be governor in one state, all at the expense of a rival state.

  9. Mr. Wilson has provided a powerful and well reasoned analysis of the political issues surrounding Chicago’s entrenched stand in the Asian Carp debacle. I appreciate and agree with all he wrote about, except his doubt about a conspiracy. There is a conspiracy of the highest order involving politicians from local gov’ts right on up to, and including, President Obama, all of them in the pockets of business and industry. They all don’t give a damn about the rest of the Great Lakes states and ecosystem

  10. Yes, Chicago wants to keep the locks open. And it’s desire to keep it open is justified since that is a corridor for commerce. But has Michigan and the other surrounding states justified closing the locks?

    Is it possible that the Asian Carp issue is a political distraction for both judicial strategy (will explain further), as well as to take the attention off the serious problem of Great Lakes pollution?

    The science does seem conflicted regarding Asian Carp. Fish biologists at the University of Michigan feel that Asian Carp would be unlikely to threaten any of the Great Lakes ecosystems. ( For similar reasons to why the common carp hasn’t done any damage, 95% of the Great Lakes’ water is too cold, they’d be out-competed for the phytoplankton by the already established zebra and quaga mussels, and carp minnow would succumb to predation by about 10-15 species of fish (of which are already food-deprived).

    It’s been argued that the Asian Carp issue is political theater.

    Since the courts have ruled that the Great Lakes corridor to the Mississippi basin can not be closed off to Illinois, the hypothesis is that the closure of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is a necessary legal action to eliminate the precedent for export of Great Lakes water out of the basin. Right now Chicago removes hundreds of thousands of gallons of Great Lakes water every day ( It’s been argued that for Michigan to reclaim control over how other states can get access to Great Lakes water, then judicial ruling would be needed.

    Right now, pollution is the greatest danger to the Great Lakes. But it’s a political non-starter, especially in a down economy. Can’t make corporations pay to dispose of their post-industrial byproducts and sewage (or to clean up the pollution) because it could affect jobs. (

  11. Dear Mr. Wilson,
    If I understand you correctly, Chicago discharges their waste water without disinfection. Is disinfection required under Federal and/or State Clean Water Act regulations, and if so, why does the City of Chicago not have to comply with the regulations? Has NRDC filed any lawsuits against the City for not meeting water quality standards?

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