Sunday, June 24, 2012

Chicago River restoration, Chicago River gentrification?

Let's continue with our focus on species. The past couple of weeks I've talked about various mechanisms for conserving endangered species habitat - mitigation banking and The Conservation Registry. But habitat restoration work is often just as much about dealing with invasive species as it is with fostering natives. So what about the invasives?

The Chicago River certainly presents an interesting case of invasive species politics - it's the last "line in the sand - wait, water - the US government has set for the threatening, but by no means threatened, Asian carp. But what's fascinating about the case is that invasives like the carp play only one part in a whole drama over the river's restoration. A recent discussion on Windy City station WBEZ lays out the million $ question - will people ever swim and fish in the Chicago? The program's definitely worth a listen (thanks to Jessa Loomis for passing along the link!)

The most striking feature about the Chicago, I learned from listening, is that it now flows in the opposite direction of its pre-settlement course. That is, now it flows from Lake Michigan to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC), into the Des Plaines, and eventually the Mississippi. That's how the carp got into the system and how they are now threatening the Lake's fishery. Then there's the question of how much of a river the river really ought to be. Huh? My understanding is that the whole Chicago area used to be one big wetland that the river just kind of mozied its way through in the best (wettest) of years. (I think it's Bill Cronon's Nature's Metropolis that has a bit of interesting background on this aspect of Chicago's environmental history).

Participants on the WBEZ program did not, of course, suggest turning Chicago back into a wetland, and instead focused on a number of things wrong with and promising for the river. To start, the "Sanitary" in CSSC is one fat euphemism for the city's use of the river to send all of its crap downstream instead of into the lake. The biggest problem here is with the city's combined sewer system. You can think of a combined sewer system as, like the internet, a series of tubes and these tubes take in both all the sewage and surface runoff. When it rains enough, Chi-town can't sanitize all the inflow and some is dumped straight into the river. In Chicago - it being a decent-sized urban area with your standard set of impervious surfaces - you get a lot more runoff from heavy rains than you would from, say, a prairie (thinking here, too, about climate change exacerbating extreme weather events...) Apparently water quality standards are now in place for the river, by which I think the WBEZ program host means to say that under section 303 of the Clean Water Act, (IL?) EPA has finally gotten around to designating the river as potentially swimmable and fishable and will require polluters like the City of Chicago to help make it that way. Still, as anyone familiar with the enforcement of any environment regulation might be able to guess, whether - and how - these standards can be acted upon successfully is another matter. Even the show's title sounds skeptical - will people ever actually recreate on the river (even with these new standards)?

Then there's the issue of reversing the flow - err..."re-reversing" the flow. I'm not sure about the ecology of flow reversal. Reversal would stop shipping Chicago's shit down to the Gulf of Mexico, and potentially cut off the carp, but it might not serve the lake well. At any rate, there's probably some huge political barriers to flow reversal. The WBEZ radio host played a clip of  IL Senator Dick Durbin naming the political problem as the Army Corps of Engineers - it would take them too long and too much money to permit flow reversal and to actually get around to doing it.

Less ambitious restoration efforts are focusing on river recreation and neighborhood development along the river. One of the radio guests was a professor who taught a design class at Harvard where students came up with various plans for the river. On the river system side, students found that there's potential to re-meander the river a bit and add in some wetlands as part of new parklands. Maybe, eventually, people could even fish away the Asian carp from some of these parks. Then there's a whole bunch of abandoned warehouses and factories along the river that might make for new housing that could be tied into riverwalks and bike paths and the like.

But here's what I'm bringing it all back to: All of the physical design stuff sounds good - disinfecting discharge, re-reversing flow, and freeing up the river channel - but who does the "social restoration" of the river - the parks, the bike paths, and the boat houses - really benefit? The answer to this kind of big question is always case or place specific, as geographers know. It's too soon to tell for Chicago. One of the program participants named developments on the river - like the kinda new, recently expanded Ping Tom Park - as a sort of "river gentrification". That's an interesting notion - the idea that, as with neighborhood gentrification, new development might come at the expense of established residents and uses and primarily to the benefit of new ones. But it's not something the program guests dug into all. It's these kind of "fuzzy" questions that are worth asking right now.


Next week: I'll probably try to figure out what the recent international Rio+20 conference on sustainable development will mean for ecosystem service politics in the US. Epic fail? Big win for green accounting? Stay tuned...

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