Even on a sweltering humid July afternoon, a cluster of Chicagoans gather by a crumbling and graffiti-scarred concrete dam along the North Branch of the Chicago River to cast their lines. Fish congregate below this dam, built more than a century ago as part of the re-engineering efforts that reversed the Chicago River. But with water cascading down the steep four-foot concrete wall, there is no way for fish to pass further upstream, to miles of river with better habitat and water quality.
Dams are being removed on rivers throughout the country in efforts to restore natural flows, facilitate fish passage, improve habitat for native plants like wild rice, and open new stretches of river to paddlers. The best-known dam removal projects are on scenic, remote rivers like the Klamath in Oregon. But the Chicago River is also getting in on the act, thanks to hard work by the Friends of the Chicago River in collaboration with community volunteers and public and private institutions.
The removal or modification of dams, as well as the installation of “fish hotels,” are two examples of small steps that some hope make a big difference in the saga of a river heavily engineered and polluted by humans over more than a century. These projects come on the heels of a big victory achieved by Friends of Chicago River, Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) and other advocates in 2011, when the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) voted to disinfect the treated wastewater that makes up a large portion of the river’s flow.
The ultimate goal: Restoring the river to a semblance of its original state and making it a place where Chicagoans can enjoy a bit of nature within the concrete jungle.
Reconnecting the Dam’d River
The aforementioned dam at River Park on the city’s north side is among four slated for removal or modification to continue the waterway’s transformation into a healthy, vibrant stream conducive to human recreation and urban wildlife.
After days of record heat and no rain, the river on this mid-summer day is low and sluggish, the water appearing brownish-green and tepid. But it is still attractive to avid paddler Chris Parson, who wades in eagerly to pick up a rock and examine its underside for signs of life.
“This is the base of the food chain,” he says, pointing out the pale water sow beetles – “aquatic cousins of the rollie-pollie” – as well as filmy freshwater sponge and squirming leeches in crevices of the rock. Parson also identifies a black-crowned night heron perched proudly on the concrete dam and a kingfisher swooping low over the water. He’s seen great horned owls, green herons, great blue herons, beavers and coyotes on this stretch of water. It’s one of his favorite areas to paddle, but the dam creates an obstacle that very few paddlers are willing to surmount. To get around it, one must scramble out on a concrete landing and portage their kayak or canoe about 200 yards, then drop back into the water on another tricky landing.
Modifying this dam will not only eliminate the portage but also create an amenity for paddlers and habitat for fish. The steep vertical wall will be removed, and the drop in elevation will be achieved with a newly constructed rock chute or series of pools that allow fish and paddlers to pass over gentle rapids with swift-flowing water. Several different design alternatives are being considered.
“However they do it, the water will be coming pretty fast, it will be pretty exciting,” Parson said.
“Chicago whitewater,” added John Quail, watershed planning director for Friends of the Chicago River.
This is the most ambitious dam modification on the Chicago River system, with the total project estimated to cost about $1 million and being carried out by Friends of the Chicago River, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) and the Chicago Park District, which is planning a new boat house just downstream from the dam.
Originally built in the early 1900s, this dam was intended to stabilize flow at the point where a man-made canal branches off toward Lake Michigan, eventually meeting the lake at the Wilmette Pumping Station. Three other dams, constructed upstream around the same time, are also slated for removal. They are smaller, simpler affairs designed to keep water in what used to be an intermittent stream and to provide water for several golf courses.
One of these dams lies at the end of an overgrown trail near a public golf course in the suburb of Niles. When water levels are high, it is hardly visible, but it creates a hazard for paddlers. When the water is low, the dam makes the river impassable, and, with jagged concrete along the bank and no clear trail alongside, portaging is extremely difficult.
The smaller dams are scheduled for removal by the end of 2012. Funded largely by state money, each removal will cost roughly $10,000 and be carried out through collaborations between the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, and the Niles Park District. The Friends of the Chicago River have been spearheading the dam removal project since about 2005, funded by grants and donations.
Room Service for the Fishies
Meanwhile, Friends of the Chicago River is also in the midst of another river revival project that could make the waterway more hospitable to fish and more attractive to anglers and paddlers. The “Fish Hotel” that hugs the side of the Chicago River downtown, below Wacker Drive just a half mile from Lake Michigan, provides a place for fish to “hang out and relax” in Quail’s words.
The hotel consists of three-tiered floating plastic boxes or “bunkers” arranged in a rectangle, with beds lush with native flowering plants bobbing inside the enclosure. Below the surface, the bunkers are filled with plants and substrate (rocks and rubble) that mimic the river habitats fish love. Ironically, this downtown stretch of the river has the system’s best water quality, flowing in from the nearby lake, but the steep walls provide virtually no habitat or cover for the bluegill, sunfish, trout or even salmon that swim in from the lake.
“It’s easy for them to breathe, but there’s nowhere for them to stop,” Quail noted.
The Fish Hotel is a pilot project started in 2005 and removed each winter. Ideally, Friends staff and supporters picture a series of fish hotels lining the walls of the downtown river, at least as far north as Goose Island, so fish can leisurely make their way between them and maybe even spawn in the artificial substrate. The hotel is also an educational tool and a recreational curiosity, as evidenced by the crowd of kayakers who congregate around it on this July day.
Staff from the Friends’ nearby Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum clean up debris around the hotel and keep tabs on the aquatic visitors, logging the different species they’ve observed and other interesting facts on a white board at the museum.
Parson and other river-users say that interest in and affection for the Chicago River has grown significantly in recent years, with more and more people paddling, rowing and fishing on the river and relaxing in parks or cafes along its banks.
The “Happy Canoe Year” event each January 1st now draws several hundred paddlers for an invigorating – if chilly – trip. The Friends holds several paddling excursions each year, including a Skokie Lagoons moonlight paddle. Several high school and college rowing clubs train in the river on a daily basis, and private canoe and kayak outfitters report tens of thousands of individuals paddling on the river each year.
Species including the Dobsonfly, Iowa darter and native mussels have made a comeback in the river. Mussels spend a larval stage attached to the gills of fish, so their spread through the river indicates that fish are moving more freely and that the waterway as a whole is becoming healthier.
For over a decade, river advocates worked to convince city officials that the Chicago River should be cleaner and safer for people and wildlife – specifically, that the 1.2 billion gallons of waste water dumped into the river each day should be disinfected to protect the thousands of people who boat, kayak, fish and swim in the river each year. They won that battle in 2011, but much work still remains to be done.
Now, advocacy groups like the Friends and city and county agencies are making progress on other fronts, like cleaning up trash and debris, improving access with boat ramps and parks, and reducing nutrient pollution that causes algae blooms. Eventually, the check list will also include curbing the release of untreated sewage into the river from combined sewage overflows (or CSOs) during heavy rains. Reducing storm water run-off through various green infrastructure improvements is one way to address this problem.
The removal or modification of dams and the installation of fish hotels may be relatively small steps, but they are important both symbolically and literally in reaching the ultimate goal of restoring the river to a semblance of its original state and making it a place where Chicagoans can enjoy a bit of nature within the concrete jungle.
“It’s so verdant here,” said Parson as he splashed below the River Park dam, “If you block out the sound of the traffic, you can forget you are even in the city for a little while.”