September 17, 2008

Great Lakes Overflowing Hypocrisy Weekend Events Show That Chicago Needs to Stop Pointing Fingers at Other Communities’ Sewer Systems.


Chicago politicians were quick to jump on Milwaukee when heavy rains in May 2004 led to the discharge of 1.7 billion gallons of partially treated sewage into Lake Michigan. Chicago officials again blamed Milwaukee for beach closings in the land of Lincoln. U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) dubbed the discharge "cheesehead sewer water," and Mayor Richard Daley said, "It's going to float down here."

Now whose sewer water is it? Over the weekend, deluged with rain, Chicago area officials opened the floodgates, allowing 99 billion gallons of runoff into Lake Michigan, according to Journal Sentinel reporting. Who are Kirk and Daley going to blame this time?

This is hardly the first time Chicago has allowed overflows. But most of the time, our neighbor's overflows go into a canal that leads eventually to the Mississippi River. In 2006, the Chicago area's sewer district spilled 7.1 billion gallons (compared with Milwaukee's 3.8 million gallons); halfway through last year, Chicago's figure was at 1.5 billion gallons (compared with Milwaukee's 400 million at the same time).

This time, those 99 billion gallons went directly into the lake. The alternative, as the alternative usually is when overflows happen, was to allow widespread flooding in the Chicago area. Sometimes, in the struggle to cope with nature's fury, nature wins, as Hurricane Ike showed Texas last week.

The point here is not to ridicule Chicago politicians for their hypocrisy (well, maybe it is, a little). The main point is that every community on the Great Lakes needs to do a better job of addressing water quality. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District does a better job than most, according to a 2006 report by a Canadian conservation group. That's in part because the system's deep tunnel system works the way it's supposed to and in part because of sound management of the system.

The point is also that the Great Lakes need more attention from outside the region as well. That's why we were pleased with Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's pledge Tuesday to inject more funding -- $5 billion -- to help the lakes and to coordinate restoration efforts.

Still, in that 2006 report, Milwaukee got a grade of only C- plus. That means everyone needs to do better, work together more effectively to obtain adequate federal aid to improve aging sewer systems and deal with stormwater runoff and to stop calling each other names. Whether it's cheesehead sewer water or flatlander sewer water, it's everyone's problem.

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