Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal

Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (at the time named the Chicago Drainage Canal) being built
Flow of water before and after construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Note that the before image here does not include the layout of the transcontinental divide Illinois and Michigan Canal (built 1848) which existed at the time (1900) but did not generally affect the flow of the waters
Lock and dam at Lockport

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, historically known as the Chicago Drainage Canal, is the only shipping link between the Great Lakes (specifically Lake Michigan by way of either the Chicago River or the Calumet-Saganashkee (Cal-Sag) Channel) and the Mississippi River system, by way of the Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers. The canal also carries Chicago's treated sewage into the Des Plaines River. Before completion of the canal in 1900, the sewage in the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan, the city's drinking water supply. The canal is part of the Chicago Wastewater System, operated by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. In 1999, the system was named a Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).[1] The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is 28 miles (45 kilometers) long, 202 feet (62 m) wide, and 24 feet (7.3 m) deep. Prior to its construction, the Illinois and Michigan Canal (1848) connected the same waterways for navigable shipping over the Chicago Portage.


Reasons for construction

The location and course of the old Illinois and Michigan Canal, which the Sanitary and Ship Canal largely replaced

Early Chicago sewage systems discharged directly into Lake Michigan or into the Chicago River, which itself flowed into the lake. The city's water supply also came from the lake, through water intake cribs located two miles offshore. There were fears that sewage could infiltrate the water supply, leading to typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery. During a tremendous storm in 1885, the rainfall washed refuse from the river far out into the lake (although reports of a 1885 cholera epidemic are untrue), spurring a panic that a future similar storm would cause a huge epidemic in Chicago. The only reason for the storm not causing such a catastrophic event was because the weather was cooler than normal. The Chicago Sanitary District (now The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District) was created by the Illinois legislature in 1889 in response to this close call.[2]

In addition, the canal was built to supplement and ultimately replace the older and smaller Illinois and Michigan Canal (built 1848) as a conduit to the Mississippi River system. In 1871, the old canal had been deepened in an attempt to reverse the river and improve shipping but the reversal of the river only lasted one season.[3] The I&M canal was also badly polluted as a result of unrestricted dumping from city sewers and industries, such as the stockyards.[4]

Planning and construction, 1887–1922

By 1887, it was decided to reverse the flow of the Chicago River through civil engineering. Engineer Isham Randolph noted that a ridge about 12 miles from the lake shore divided the Mississippi River drainage system from the Great Lakes drainage system. A plan soon emerged to cut through that ridge and carry waste water away from the lake, through the Des Plaines and Illinois rivers, to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. In 1889, the Illinois General Assembly created the Sanitary District of Chicago (SDC) to carry out the plan. After four years of turmoil during construction, Isham Randolph took control as Chief Engineer and resolved many issues circulating around the project. Isham Randolph was appointed Chief Engineer for the newly formed Sanitary District of Chicago.

The canal, linking the south branch of the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River at Lockport, and in advance of an application by the Missouri Attorney General for an injunction against the opening, was opened on January 2, 1900. However, it was not until January 17 that the complete flow of the water was released.[5][6][7] Further construction from 1903 to 1907 extended the canal to Joliet, as SDC wanted to replace the previously build Illinois & Michigan Canal with the CSSC. The rate of flow is controlled by the Lockport Powerhouse, sluice gates at Chicago Harbor and at the O'Brien Lock in the Calumet River, and also by pumps at Wilmette Harbor. Two more canals were later built to add to the system: the North Shore Channel in 1910, and the Cal-Sag Channel in 1922.

Construction of the Ship and Sanitary Canal was the largest earth-moving operation that had been undertaken in North America up to that time. It was also notable for training a generation of engineers, many of whom later worked on the Panama Canal.[8] In 1989, the Sanitary District of Chicago was renamed the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.[9]

Diversion of water from Great Lakes

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal is designed to work by taking water from Lake Michigan and discharging it into the Mississippi River watershed. At the time of construction, a specific amount of water diversion was authorized by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and approved by the Secretary of War, under provisions of various Rivers and Harbors Acts; over the years however this limit was "not honored" or well regulated. While the increased flow more rapidly flushed the untreated sewerage and increased navigation and commerce, it also was seen as a hazard to navigation of concern to USACE in relation to the level of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, from which the water was diverted. Litigation ensued from 1907 which eventually saw states downstream of the canal siding with the sanitary district and those states downstream of Lake Michigan with Canada siding against the district.[10] The litigation was eventually decided by the Supreme Court in Sanitary District of Chicago v. United States in 1925,[11][12] and again in Wisconsin v. Illinois in 1929.[13] In 1930 management of the canal was turned over to the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers reduced the flow of water from Lake Michigan into the canal but kept it open for navigation purposes.[8] These decisions prompted the sanitary district to accelerate their treatment of raw sewerage.[citation needed] Today, diversions from the Great Lakes system are regulated by an international treaty with Canada, through the International Joint Commission, and by governors of the Great Lakes states.

Pollution of the Canals

Chicago’s sewage treatment system discharges only lightly treated fecal matter into the canals. Because of concerns of the effects of chlorine, Chicago has a rare distinction among major American cities: It does not employ a disinfection stage at its three main sewage treatment plants. The result is canal water with fecal coliform colonies, so that signs along the canals warn that the contents are not suitable for ‘any human body contact.[14]

Asian carp and the canal

On November 20, 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that a single sample of DNA from Asian carp had been found above the electric barrier that had been constructed in the canal in an attempt to prevent them from migrating into the Great Lakes. The silver carp, also known as the flying carp, has migrated through the Mississippi, and could possibly make its way into the Great Lakes.[15] The carp can grow to 50 or more pounds, and is noted for its jumping above water. Ironically, the carp were first introduced with the blessing of the EPA in the 1970s to help remove algae from catfish farms in Arkansas. The carp have escaped the farms and migrated up the Mississippi River system. They now threaten to enter the Great Lakes through the man made canal connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River water shed. The carp displace native species of fish by filter feeding and removing the bottom of the food chain for indigenous species.

On December 2, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal closed, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) began applying a fish poison, rotenone, in an effort to kill Asian carp north of Lockport. Although no Asian carp were found in the two months of commercial and electrofishing, the massive fish kill did discover a single carp.[16]

On December 21, 2009, Michigan State Attorney General Mike Cox filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking the immediate closure of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan. The state of Illinois and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which constructed the Canal, are co-defendants in the lawsuit.[17]

In response to the Michigan lawsuit, on January 5, 2010, Illinois State Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a counter-suit with the U.S. Supreme Court requesting that it reject Michigan’s claims. Siding with the State of Illinois, both the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and The American Waterways Operators have filed affidavits, arguing that closing the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal would upset the movement of millions of tons of vital shipments of iron ore, coal, grain and other cargo, totaling more than $1.5 billion a year, and contribute to the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands of jobs.[18] However, Michigan along with several other Great Lakes states argue that the sport and commercial fishery and tourism associated with the fishery of the entire Great Lakes region is estimated at $7 billion a year, and impacts the economies of all Great Lakes states and Canada.

On January 19, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the request for a preliminary injunction closing the canal.[19]

See also


  1. ^ American Society of Civil Engineers. "Chicago Wastewater System". Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  2. ^ The Straight Dope: Did 90,000 people die of typhoid fever and cholera in Chicago in 1885?
  3. ^ Miller, Donald L. City of the Century (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996) p. 427
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ "The Chicago Canal Opened"; "Permanent Injunction Asked" The New York Times, Jan. 18, 1900, p8
  6. ^ "The Chicago Drainage Canal", The Outlook 64: 9, January 6 1900,, retrieved 2009-07-30 
  7. ^ Baker, M. N. (February 10 1900), "The Chicago Drainage Canal", The Outlook 64: 355–360,, retrieved 2009-07-30 
  8. ^ a b Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal
  9. ^ Joseph T. Zurad, The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago: Our Second Century of Meeting Challenges and Achieving Success, ASCE, 1996
  10. ^ J. Q. Dealey, Jr., The Chicago Drainage Canal and St. Lawrence Development, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 23, No. 2, Apr., 1929
  12. ^ Sanitary District of Chicago v. United States:Opinion of the Court
  13. ^ U.S. Supreme Court. Wisconsin v. Illinois, 281 U.S. 696 (1930)
  14. ^
  15. ^ Belkin, Douglas (20 November 2009), Asian Carp could Hurt Boating, Fishing, Wall Street Journal,, retrieved 2009-11-21 
  16. ^ Garcia, John (3 December 2009), One Asian carp found in canal after fish kill, ABC Affiliate WLS-TV,, retrieved 2010-01-07 
  17. ^ Hood, Joel (22 December 2009), Fight to keep Asian carp out of Great Lakes reaches Supreme Court, Los Angeles Times,,0,7502213.story, retrieved 2010-01-07 
  18. ^ Merrion, Paul (4 January 2010), Illinois fights back as states seek carp-blocking canal closures, Crain’s Chicago Business,, retrieved 2010-01-07 .
  19. ^ Barnes, Robert (2010-01-20), More Supreme Court actions, Washington Post,, retrieved 2010-01-20 

External links

Coordinates: 41°42′18″N 87°56′02″W / 41.705°N 87.93389°W / 41.705; -87.93389

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