It's Good to Have Friends

Cal-Sag Cycles is fortunate to be friends with the Friends of the Calumet-Sag Trail, undoubtedly one of the best and most anticipated projects in the Southland. Not only will the Calumet-Sag Trail provide 26 miles of biking goodness along the Cal-Sag, but it helps bring attention to a long neglected resource. It lets communities of character such as Blue Island and its industrial (and industrious!) neighbors showcase what residents have long known: this place matters. Not only that: don’t count us out… we ain’t dead yet.

Change is on its way all around us. We first saw from Openlands the terrific news that MWRD has voted to start keeping Calumet area rivers clean. While we hope this doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of our Creature From the Cal-Sag mascot, we do hope this means more people than ever will head down to Blue Island and launch a boat at Fay’s Point or elsewhere on the Little Calumet River and enjoy some time exploring the southside.

We love getting out and about in the Calumet region with some of our other friends, the Calumet Outdoor Series. This wonderful group of hiking and paddling events brings out the best in the Calumet. Their next event, June 18, is at nearby Beaubien Woods. Anyone want to bike there with us?!

Centennial Trail detour options, a set on Flickr.

Responses from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago are saying that they’ll work on signing a detour soon for the closed Centennial Trail. But the detour options will take more than signs. We walked the detour routes on the east end to the I&M Canal Trail today and took pictures. Oy!

AND…the trail isn’t closed for work on the Sanitary & Ship Canal. It’s closed because the District needed a convenient place to dump earth removed from the McCook Reservoir a few miles away. Not very respectful of the tax dollars invested to build the Centennial Trail. The MWRD can be better than this.
Top image: (Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District of Greater Chicago) The red shows unconfirmed combined sewer overflows on April 18. Bottom image: Combined sewer overflows across the Great Lakes.

Heavy rain overwhelms combined sewer system

Chicago’s sewer problems may be stark, but they are not unique

April 18, 2013 By: Chris Bentley

Inundated by nearly 5 inches of rain in less than 36 hours, Chicago water officials have had to “re-reverse” the flow of the Chicago River, opening the large gates that separate Lake Michigan from the river to relieve pressure on a sewer system swollen with runoff and waste.

As Chicago Magazine’s Whet Moser reported, the deluge has easily outpaced recent upgrades to the city’s water and sewage infrastructure. Michael Hawthorne of the Chicago Tribune reported in 2011 that Lake Michigan had been hit with more sewage in recent years than the previous two decades combined.

The Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District said Thursday that its 109-mile network of tunnels and reservoirs was 100 percent full. The Mainstream Tunnel was full by 12:31 a.m., while the Des Plaines Tunnel filled up at 3:30 a.m. Built to contain 2.3 billion gallons, the system hit capacity and poured enough stormwater and sewage into Chicago-area waterways to help raise their levels higher than Lake Michigan. Following protocol, MWRD tried to relieve some of that pressure by dumping the tainted water into the lake.

Contaminants can spread kilometers away from shore. MWRD has asked residents to minimize their water use to help ease the strain on the heavily burdened system. Not that it’s a great day for a swim, anyway, but you might not want to hit the beach, either.

Chicago’s sewer problems may be stark, but they are not unique. A 2004 EPA report to Congressfound Chicago’s overflows plagued mainly by bacteria, while the city of Toledo, Ohio suffered pollution from copper, lead, silver and zinc. Water samples taken near Toledo’s sewer outfalls showed effects of chronic toxicity. A 2010 study by the National Wildlife Federation found cities around the Great Lakes discharged 41 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater into the lakes in 2009, with Chicago and Detroit leading the way.

There has been some progress. Detroit has decreased sewer overflows by 80 percent below 1995 levels by adding capacity, but had to back off its own deep tunnel project in 2009 due to lack of funding.

Chicago’s waterways have cleared up, too, but face a murky future. The total number of fish species found in the Chicago and Calumet river system increased six-fold between 1974, around the time that MWRD upgraded their facilities, and 2001. But the Deep Tunnel project originally meant to help the system avoid overflows won’t be complete until 2029, and may still be inadequate in the face of floods pumped up by climate change.
Federal officials push for cleanup of sewage-laden Chicago River -

I agree we should always be pushing to make things better, particularly in regards to our environmental resources. However, I don’t think we’re seeing the whole story on this discussion. 

1st) Rep. Quigley states “Safe water and clean air have to be at the top of our priorities.” However, everyone keeps ignoring the fact that UV disinfecting uses a ton of energy which could lead to a drastic increase in the MWRD’s carbon footprint. When I think about what worries me most in our environment today it’s global climate change and not killing the final 20% or so of bacteria in the Chicago River.  

2nd) If we going to push for a cleaner Chicago river, then I want this push to come from the residents and tax-payers of Cook County. We’re not talking about giant corporate conglomerates polluting our river, we’re talking about a government agency run by ELECTED officials. If the residents of Cook County want to see the River cleaned, they should push that through the ballot box. 

I don’t agree with an unelected US EPA coming into our city and enforcing unfunded requirements upon our residents. The percentage of federal tax money that returns to Illinois compared to what we send to Washington places us in the bottom five in the country. If the federal government wants to place more requirements on our taxpayers, then they need to find a way to help foot the bill. 

3rd) None of this makes any sense until we can find the funding to complete the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) project. Without that project being completed the city will still experience numerous Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) events each year – in these events completely raw sewage dumps into the river (and sometimes the lake) to handle exceptionally large amounts of rain. Finishing this project should be the number one priority of the MWRD.

Last night’s meeting in Willow Springs about the Centennial Trails’ impending closure May 13 went as well as you expected/can imagine: Agency staff out of their element standing in front of a room of angry, distrustful people. Near the end, the district engaged a little too much in us-against-all-of-you, it got loud, and police poked their heads into the room just to check on things, which settled down. Then meeting adjourned.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago turned out key staff engaged in the McCook Reservoir expansion project, Commissioner Debra Shore, and supporting display boards and project map hand outs (above display board photo courtesy of League of Illinois Bicyclists’ Gina Kenny, more at the link). The district’s engineering chief, Catherine O'Connor, led the presentation and public input. The initial audience of maybe 75 was closer to 100 by the meeting’s end an hour later. The district captured all comments on videotape.

The district committed to clear and informative detour signs, to hiring a landscape architect to design the Centennial Trail’s replacement, and to giving serious consideration to all comments and ideas offered about the project. 

Six months ago, the MWRD’s level of consideration for this meeting would probably have been much more appreciated by some. But the audience was still too stung by the trail’s unannounced-closure-then-extremely-short-notice-closure to treat any of the meeting as more than perfunctory.

Many who commented prefaced their questions and criticisms with appreciation for the MWRD’s efforts on flood control, and even for their partnership in new trail projects. Most of the comments circled around our six points. (Of course we congratulate ourselves, but feel free to remind us that they’re kind of obvious.) Three in particular were most voiced:

  1. Willow Springs Road is a poor detour route–many accused the MWRD of putting trail users in harm’s way, and said the district should do what it can to improve user safety
  2. The I&M Canal Trail between Willow Springs Road and Route 83 needs resurfacing to accommodate the added trail traffic as a detour route
  3. Planning the trail closure and its impacts was incompetent/inconsiderate/irresponsible/etc., and the MWRD needs to do better

Heather Wickens of the Canal Corridor Association noted the negative economic impact that trail closure could have on towns like Willow Springs and Lemont along the corridor. Ders Anderson of Openlands asked about the legality of burying a federally funded trail–$3+ million of Enhancements funding constructed the trail–which also became a repeated topic. MWRD’s O'Connor said “We’ll look into that.”

Whether the MWRD looks into any of the comments and questions will become obvious over the next three years, of course. Collecting this input four days before closure doesn’t engender a lot of confidence, but to the MWRD’s credit, I think they really feel that they’ve done the wrong thing here. In conversations with staff and Commissioner Shore after adjournment, I found them a bit stunned and also sincere about earning back trail users’ trust. A staff member remarked how the district must close roads to repair sewer issues, and that this project looked on paper like another road closure and detour. They didn’t realize that people have a much stronger, much more personal connection to trails than they do to any road or street. That sounds like a dumb thing not to realize, but inside a huge agency like theirs, laser focused on opening their TARP system, it rings true.

It might offer a glimmer of an upside from last night: as frustrating and possibly unproductive (time will tell) as it was, I think last night’s meeting might have made trails count for the MWRD in a powerful way that they didn’t before. The region’s trail systems need the district to continue being the world-class trail building partner they’ve been since the Centennial Trail was established. They might be on their way to becoming world-class trail stewards as well.

Catherine O'Connor invited the audience back in one month to learn the district’s response to the comments and questions raised last night. That’s a good next move. We’ll post info when it’s available.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and special thanks to you if you turned out last night. And please don’t be shy about donating a little to Trails for Illinois—these fights are draining, and we’d appreciate the help.

Comments welcome, and have a great weekend. Maybe ride the Centennial one last time.

Steve Buchtel, Executive Director

On Saturday, I joined the Southeast Environmental Task Force (SETF) on one of its tours of Chicago’s goliath infrastructure. The tour featured the future site of the Thornton Composite Reservoir, the largest such reservoir in the world, and a Deep Tunnel pumping station 350’ below ground at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant. Both are part of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD)’s gargantuan Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, the multi-decade, multi-billion dollar project designed to protect the Chicago region from the flooding and pollution caused by overflowing sewer and stormwater infrastructure.

David Schalliol, Touring the Deep Tunnel and Thornton Quarry - Gapers Block Mechanics | Chicago


Inside view of the Nicholas J. Me last Centennial Fountain at McClurg Court #chicagoriver #choosechicago #mwrd

As it is today.

In celebration of its centennial back in 1988-89, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago led the Centennial Trail’s establishment and its first stages of development, dedicating 1000 acres along the Sanitary & Ship Canal and the Des Plaines River without cost to the Forest Preserve Districts for the trail. They had a clear goal of completing the trail to the historic portage site at 47th St. and Harlem Ave., and from there on to Navy Pier, past the second project of their centennial celebration: the water jets over the Chicago River. A charming Sun-Times article from November 20, 1989, claimed the entire trail would be finished in three years. (Swoon!)

You can read other news clippings from the Centennial Trail’s dedication here (thanks to the Canal Corridor Association and Openlands for daylighting these).

Note that this was before the federal 1991 Clean Air Act which set aside billions of dollars over the ensuing 20+ years for trail development. Trail building took partnership and initiative, and the MWRD led the way. 

The Centennial Trail closure is the MWRD’s time to lead again. A resurgent Forest Preserve District of Cook County, now developing its Trails Master Plan, is the perfect partner to turn the Centennial Trail closure into a massive regional trail win, without adding time or cost to the McCook Reservoir expansion project. By granting an easement to the Forest Preserve District for trail development, the MWRD can clear the way for the Centennial’s extension to the portage site when the McCook Reservoir overburden project is finished in 2016. The portage site is also the Salt Creek Trail’s southeastern trail head, which connects to Woodfield Mall. 

A three-year trail closure can become a 50-mile suburban trail connection between Joliet and Schaumburg. This is EXACTLY the kind of win-win-win collaboration that has characterized the MWRD’s projects in the past. Think the SEPA station parks along the Cal-Sag, or the original Centennial Trail. The agency has a history of reaching out beyond its own immediate needs to benefit us in ways beyond managing our sewers

“This is an excellent example of four governments coming together in a non-traditional way,” said MWRD Commissioner Joanne Alter, the chair of the Centennial Committee in 1989. It’s time to establish partnership as a new tradition.

Centennial Trail Closes for 2-3 years starting May 13

Chicago-area trail users, please move your schedules to attend this:

Public Informational Meeting to discuss Centennial Trail and McCook Reservoir with Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

6 p.m. on Thursday, May 9, 2013
Willow Springs Community Center, 8156 Archer Ave., Willow Springs

Click here to jump to our six points for the discussion (below the following section)

What you need to know:

One hundred miles of pipes the size of the gateway above move storm water underneath Cook County, and their capacity was certainly tested two weeks ago. The water they carry has to go somewhere, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has targeted McCook Reservoir (map) as critical storage for the system when its expansion is complete.

The overburden from that expansion—1.8 million cubic yards of brown earth that’s scraped off the top of, in this case, limestone to be mined—will be deposited on the Centennial Trail, near Route 83 in Lemont. The MWRD wants to rebuild the trail when they’re finished in 2-3 years, and they’d like your input on that.

The Centennial Trail is built on MWRD property through a lease agreement with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Trucks can transport the overburden nearly five miles down along the Sanitary & Ship Canal to the dump site, never leaving MWRD property, avoiding public roads. This has huge savings for the agency by avoiding dumping permits, tipping fees, other transportation costs—$9 million total savings for the $18 million project.

It’s the kind of lean, cost-efficient thinking we want out of our public agencies. But we also want them to be good stewards, and in this case, there’s a federally funded trail there.

When the overburden removal is complete, where these guys are riding (yes, I was in a car, and it’s ironic, get over it) will instead be a dirt pile that’s 1.5 miles long from Route 83 east, and 60 feet high. The Centennial Trail, which was named by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County in honor of the MWRD’s centennial, will be buried beneath it. Over $3 million in federal transportation money paid for the trail’s construction, and nearly $1 million local tax payer money.

The MWRD needs 2-3 years to complete overburden removal. In 2015, the agency will build a new trail on the north side of the pile, closer to the Des Plaines River. In the mean time, the MWRD plans to sign a detour route on both Route 83 and at Columbia Woods along Willow Springs Road directing Centennial Trail users to the I&M Canal Trail on the other side of the Sanitary & Ship Canal.

Here are issues that trail users need resolved:

1. A detour across the Willow Springs Road bridge to its intersection with Archer Road is confusing and dangerous. The John Husar I&M Trailhead, the detour’s destination, is completely hidden and unsigned from Willow Springs Road and Archer Road. How will the MWRD work with Cook County Highways, IDOT, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to mitigate these issues? Can they provide a permanent wayfinding sign solution for the John Husar trailhead?

2. The MWRD closed the Centennial Trail in early March without notifying the public, the Forest Preserve District, the adjacent communities, and IDOT (a requirement when closing a federally funded transportation facility). Now their public meeting is four days before closure. The agency is too important as a regional trail partner to be so cavalier about its plans. Will the MWRD establish a protocol of alerting the public and necessary agencies regarding potential trail impacts during project planning, before the scope is finalized and the project bid?

3. The MWRD should show a detailed plan for the Centennial Trail’s replacement. The landscape of the “island” between the Sanitary & Ship Canal and the Des Plaines River will be dramatically and permanently changed. A new trail to replace the Centennial will have to deal with slope, erosion, increased flooding as the giant berm contains Des Plaines River overflow. Will the MWRD partner with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County in a public process to develop the planning and design specifications for a replacement trail?

4. Will the replacement trail be finished at the close of the overburden project, or will it be built after the 2-3 year closure–and really be unavailable for four years or more?

5. The Centennial Trail is part of the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor, and is planned to connect to Salt Creek Trail at the historic portage site at 47th St. and Harlem. 

From there, trail users could bicycle to Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. That extension is nearly entirely on MWRD property, as is the current Centennial Trail. In exchange for eliminating 2-3 years of service to trail users along the Centennial Trail, will the MWRD enable the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to develop the connection to the portage site?

6. The overburden pile of clean earth can itself become a recreational resource. Its height would put one above the tree line, giving a spectacular view of the valley and likely the city of Chicago. Will the MWRD allow organizations to develop walking and mountain biking trails that climb the berm?

None of these points are intended to stop the McCook Reservoir expansion from on-time completion—we need the MWRD to do its job, AND to live up to their well-earned reputation as fantastic trail building partners.

What other recommendations or issues will you bring to the meeting? Share them!