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Chicago's waterway systems

Chicago’s many waterways consist of natural and manmade systems. These systems connect Chicago to the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Mississippi River to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Hundreds of miles of lakes, rivers and canals are used for shipping American products to the world and bringing global products to the Midwest.

Navy Pier and Chicago Harbor
Photo by Elaine C. Shigley

Two basins drained by rivers make up the region. These are the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basins. Major navigable lakes and rivers are found in these basins. Over the years changes were made in some major rivers to create manmade channels and canals.

The Great Lakes Basin includes the Great Lakes, consisting of Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior. The surrounding lands are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada. These lakes receive surface runoff from the rivers and channels that drain into the Great Lakes. An area east of Wolfe Island, Ontario drains into the Saint Lawrence River, but it’s considered part of the Great Lakes Basin.

The Mississippi River Basin includes the rivers that drain into the Mississippi River. The basin comprises lands reaching east to the Valparaiso and Tinley Moraines near Lake Michigan. Many rivers that receive surface runoff flow into the Mississippi River. Looking south, on the east side of the river, the St. Croix, Wisconsin, Rock, Illinois, Kaskaskia and Ohio Rivers flow into the Mississippi. On the west bank looking south, the Minnesota, Des Moines, Missouri, White, Arkansas and Red Rivers flow into the Mississippi.

The manmade water systems connect to the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and the rivers that flow into it. They are the now obsolete Illinois and Michigan Canal, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the Cal-Sag Channel and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

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