In a sign that Mayor Richard Daley is still making big plans with just eight months left in office, he floated the idea Friday of undoing Chicago's greatest engineering feat — reversing the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan — to improve the ecology of the Great Lakes.
"I said, 'Boy that's a great project,' " Daley told the Tribune, recalling a conversation he had last week with his brother William as they sat near the lake. "Instead of diverting all that water, maybe we should reverse it (to flow into the lake).
"That's a great project, we have to start thinking about it now, and of course go to the business community and set up a committee and work with the Water Reclamation District and others and Army Corps of Engineers," Daley added. "That could be the salvation maybe of the Great Lakes."
Daley revealed his support for the idea during an interview in one of his office conference rooms three days after announcing he would not run for a record seventh term next year.
More than 100 years ago, city leaders completed decades of work that reversed the river's flow so that untreated sewage did not flow into the lake, source of the city's drinking water. The project also linked Chicago to the nation's shipping waterways.
But it diverted a significant amount of water from the lake and created a way for invasive species, like Asian carp, to get from the Mississippi River into the Great Lakes ecosystem. So Daley, who helped form an international coalition to protect the lakes, started thinking about re-reversing the river's flow.
Daley went on to say that reversing the river wouldn't require the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to reverse its long-standing opposition to treating sewage before it's dumped in the river.
"I don't think so," said the mayor, adding that the massive, ongoing Deep Tunnel project, designed to prevent stormwater overflow from contaminating the city's waterways, would have to progress much further before anything could be done. "If we get another tunnel built, which I think will be possible and everybody would support that, it would be possible in the next 20 years that we could have this, and that would really help ecology."
Some environmentalists and Great Lakes advocates have long lobbied Chicago to redesign its system to return the Chicago River to its original flow, though it would be expensive. Responding to Asian carp fears, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has asked Congress to look at re-engineering the region's waterway system. That study would look at the feasibility of reversing the river's flow.
During the interview, Daley also reiterated that no one city or personal issue made him decide to make this term his last. Chicago's failure to land the 2016 Summer Olympics, the lousy economy and even the suicide of Chicago Public Schools President Michael Scott, a close friend, did not affect his decision to retire, Daley said. "Life goes on, and that doesn't mean you forget anyone," he said.
Despite a string of high-profile federal probes into the city hiring, contracts and inspections that ended in many criminal convictions, Daley said he had done enough over the years to combat corruption.
"There's not a significant amount of corruption," he said. "Yes, there is corruption, but like anything else, you take care of it, you weed it out and you move on."
He also defended himself from critics who contend he did much for downtown at the expense of the neighborhoods. Daley said he's built libraries, police stations, parks and schools in the neighborhoods but stressed the importance of investing in downtown.
"Downtown produces a lot of jobs, a lot of taxes and a lot of money," he said. "Most cities do not have downtowns. But we're fortunate to have both communities and (a) downtown."
Tribune reporters Joel Hood and Cynthia Dizikes contributed to this report.
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