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The enduring Chicago River

The Chicago River endures as a symbol of Chicago and is celebrated by the two, blue, parallel stripes on Chicago’s municipal flag. It’s also honored with the Y-shaped icon found on buildings and other edifices throughout the city. The reversal of the river was recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1999, as the Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium.

Photographing the Chicago River
Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The 1980s saw an increase in industrial pollution and contamination from sewage. Chicagoans complained to Mayor Richard M. Daley about this environmental damage to the river and its effects on Chicago’s communities. The mayor and City Council resolved to end this problem, and the river was cleaned up in the 1990s. Mayor Emanuel and the City Council approved the use of catfish to keep the river clean this year. Additional problems of invasive species of fish are also being addressed.

As noted in previous articles, the Great Lakes shares boundaries with Canada. All drainages from the Great Lakes Basin are regulated by the U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes Commission. Drainages to the Chicago River were determined in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1967. This decision was later amended in 1980 and 1997. Under the decision, Chicago is allowed to remove 3,200 cu. ft. of water per second from the Great Lakes System. The city sends half this amount down the Chicago River and the remainder is used for drinking water.

In 2005, scientific researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign produced a three-dimensional, hydrodynamic of the Chicago River. They wanted to learn why the river traveled in two directions in winter. Their study found that on the surface water travels from east to west according to the completed reversal. However at the bottom of the riverbed, density currents cause the river to flow toward the lake.

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