Sunday, September 14, 2008

Johnny Yen's Chicago Stories: Deep Tunnel

One day, when I was in a high school chemistry class my senior year in 1979 at Lyons Township High School, in Lagrange, Illinois, my lab partner Mike Okkema and I were finishing up the write-up in a lab in our Qualitative Analysis class, when there was a loud "boom." The lab table I was seated at, which had a slate top that was nearly two inches thick and must have weighed several hundred pounds, jumped up about an inch and came back down.

Our first assumption was that the other chem lab, next door, had blown up. It turned out that that was the assumption the other chemistry teacher had about our lab. Both he and my teacher ran to the doorways of the office they shared, which connected the two classrooms.

Both classrooms were okay. The rattled students conjectured what might have caused the "boom." An "M-80" (a firecracker with the power of a quarter stick of dynamite) thrown down a toilet? Or perhaps it was an unusually large blast from the long-running Chicago Deep Tunnel project, something we'd occasionally hear and feel.

Weeks later we discovered that it was not an M-80 nor Deep Tunnel, but a minor earthquake, a rarity in Chicago.

Yesterday, though, in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, It was Deep Tunnel that everybody was thinking and talking about.

At about 7:30 yesterday morning, as I sat eating breakfast with my kids, I got a call from my ex. With the overnight torrential downpour we'd had (over six inches in 24 hours, it turned out), the backyard of the old house she'd bought earlier this year had turned into a pond. Her basement was wet-- she could see form watermarks on boxes on the floor that there had been a couple of inches of water there overnight, before it drained. She asked me to come over and look at it.

By the time my son and I got over there, there was water coming into the basement again-- there were about two inches of water in the basement already. As I walked around in my bare feet, the water continued to rise. I grabbed some old paint cans and got her washer and dryer up on them while she and our son got boxes off of the floor and on top of shelves and water-tight boxes. The water began coming up through the drain. I made a mental note to make sure to wash my feet off well when I got home. There was certainly sewage mixed in with this. The water was also coming up through cracks in the foundation.

Finally the rain eased up and I noticed that the water had stopped rising, peaking at the top of the bottom stair of her basement.


Through it all, she and I kept asking the rhetorical question: "Where the hell is Deep Tunnel?" Wasn't the multi-billion dollar, multi-decade project supposed to prevent just this thing?

Later in the day, my ex emailed me the link for a Sun-Times article in which they reported that the Deep Tunnel tunnels had become overwhelmed by 7:30 am- right around when my ex's basement began to flood. The Metropolitan Sanitary District, the Chicago-area special district for dealing with runoff water and sewage, began to pour the mix of runoff water and raw sewage into the Chicago River, and ultimately into Lake Michigan. By about 10:15, when we were just finishing rescuing the objects in her basement, they were opening the locks near downtown Chicago to allow this.

http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/1161780,deeptunnel091308.article

I did a little research and discovered why Deep Tunnel hadn't done what it was supposed to, prevent flooding of Chicago-area basements during unusually large rainfalls: it isn't done yet.

What, you are undoubtedly asking, is "Deep Tunnel?"

Let's start from the beginning. Chicago grew, like most cities, because of its location. Being near Lake Michigan and several rivers, it was great transportation center. Consequently it became a major trading post, and then an industrial center, never mind the fact that it was mostly marsh. A combined drainage and sewage system that drained into the Chicago River, and ultimately Lake Michigan, was built.

Like many simple solutions to complex problems (See "War in Iraq"), there were consequences that were worse than the original problem. Cholera, a disease spread by the consumption of water contaminated with human waste, rapidly became the number one cause of death in Chicago. To solve this problem, Chicago engineered the reversal of the Chicago River; it began to be filled by Lake Michigan, rather than empty into it. This happened in 1900.

Over the next few decades, there were major projects in order to deal with the consequences of this reveral-- after all, the water that had for millions of years drained into Lake Michigan now needed somewhere else to go. The Sanitary and Ship Canal, which was finished at the same time as the river reversal, was the first of these. It had the effect of dumping sewage that the Chicago River had formerly dumped into Lake Michigan into the Des Plaines River. Next was the North Shore Channel (for you Chicagoans, that's the one that runs along McCormack Ave and drains into the lake by the Bahai Temple) and construction of the locks at the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1930's.

After World War II, new suburbs began to spring up around Chicago, solving the massive post-war housing shortage. Most of these communities planned wisely-- they had separate systems for sewage and rainwater drainage. Again, with many simple solutions, came more problems. Many of these suburbs were built in areas that had formerly been areas that larger rainfalls had drained into-- "floodplains.". Consequently flooding became a perennial problem in many Chicago suburbs (as well as parts of the city). According to Wikipedia, there were major floods in the Chicago Metropolitan area in 1952, 1954, 1957, 1961, 1973, 1979, 1986, 1987, and 1996. And of course yesterday, as we got hit by the tail end of the hurricane that hit Texas.


In the mid 1970's, the Metropolitan Sanitary District began working on a long-term solution. It began working on a massive series of tunnels and underground retention ponds carved out of the bedrock that lies under a couple of hundred feet of clay in the Chicago area that would be designed to hold the runoff from the larger storms that hit the Chicago area every few years.

Most of the work on the tunnel system-- all 109.4 miles of it- was finished in October, 2005. It was the blasting for these tunnels that I would occasionally hear and feel when I was a teenager living in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. That was a 30 year project. To give you an idea of the generational timeframe, I was just finishing junior high school when they began it in 1975, and my son was starting junior high school when they finished it in 2005.

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the project. The tunnels are for quickly moving huge amounts of runoff water to massive underground reservoirs that are still being carved out. The two under southwest suburban McCook, Illinois will become operational in 2013 and 2019. Another, under Thorton Township, will become operational in 2019. If this all works, the runoff/sewage mix from massive rainfalls will be held by these huge reservoirs while sewage treatment plants process it for dumping into the Calumet and Des Plaines Rivers.

So right now, the only reservoirs that Deep Tunnel has are the tunnels themselves. The actual reservoirs are years from completion.

The picture at the top of the post is the front of today's Chicago Sun Times. It was taken yesterday at Argyle and Monticello, about two blocks from the Albany Park apartment my family lived in when I was a kid. The guy in the picture is standing in water up to his knees outside of his home. His basement must be completely filled. I guess my ex got off easy.

When I got home yesterday, I checked our basement, which got about a foot of water after a microburst last June. There were a few small trickles coming in, but no damage. I was relieved. Apparently the big upgrade in drainage that my landlord, bless his heart, spent so much money on in the last year, was well worth it.

And the rest of Chicago and the surrounding suburbs? If history is a yardstick, we will have between one and three serious floods between now and the completion of Deep Tunnel. The prospect of the eventual completion of the project will be cold comfort to the people whose basements and homes flood between now and then.

And this assumes, of course, that the damned thing actually works like its supposed to. So far, in Chicago, every solution to our water problems have posed new problems.

7 comments:

SkylersDad said...

This is fascinating JY. We here in Colorado have so little water that we never seem to have a problem with it, other than it floods some poorly designed road underpass every now and then.

lulu said...

My parents made the mistake of buying the lowest house on the block, and every fall our family room, crawlspace and garage flooded. Add to that all of the leaves blocking the drainage in the driveway, and the frequent power outages that shut down the sump pump, and you have a very messy situation.

Where I live now, people just get swept away by cyclones periodically.

'Bubbles' said...

Thanks for the education, JY. I lived in the Chicago area all of those years and wondered what the hell the deep tunnel was all about. I knew it had something to do with water, but I didn't know if it was clean water or dirty water.

Now that I see the devastation from Ike I feel a little like a whiner about my flood disaster in '06. Water damage clean up sucks! I'm so glad your basement was o.k. this time!

Bubs said...

That explains it.

I know they were still blasting just north of Devon Avenue off Milwaukee back in the mid-90's. I had no idea those reservoirs weren't done yet.

Erik Donald France said...

Wow -- this is an astonishing story, well told, and new to me.

We'd already moved to St. Paul by the late 60s.

Grant Miller said...

I will read this further when I'm done getting water out of my basement.

Anonymous said...

I'll email you some photos taken just before they opened up the works...

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