Q. I think I have a solution to our low-water problems on the river. Doesn't water from Lake Michigan flow into the Illinois River and, finally, into the Mississippi? Why not simply increase the flow from that huge lake to boost river levels here?
-- F.D., of Belleville
A. Nice idea, but, unfortunately, it doesn't hold water.
Yes, thanks to man's intervention, some water from Lake Michigan does take a convoluted path to the Mississippi. However, a 1967 Supreme Court ruling, combined with a 2008 agreement among area governors, limits how much water we can take from the lake.
Besides, if you think we have problems, you ought to be in Chicago right now -- and I'm talking possible woes bigger than the Cubs' 105-year World Championship drought.
Two centuries ago, your plan wouldn't have been a possibility at all. Mother Nature had the Chicago River flowing into Lake Michigan, helping to make it the largest lake within one country by surface area -- about 22,300 square miles. (By water volume, however, it is far smaller than Lake Baikal in Russia, which is much deeper.)
But problems arose when the metropolis of Chicago began to spring up on the lake's shoreline. Long before the days of the Environmental Protection Agency, settlers began dumping their waste into the Chicago River, which, in turn, flowed into the lake.
At first, the numbers were small enough that it didn't make much difference. But by the early 1880s, the river, which was the city's drinking-water source, was turning into a huge sewage cesspool from all the human and industrial garbage.
That's when they went to work to flush this toilet, in a manner of speaking. In a monumental feat of engineering, they reversed the flow of the Chicago River by bringing water from Lake Michigan into the river and then south through a canal that eventually connected with the Mississippi. Called the Chicago Diversion, it brought a relatively clean source of drinking water in from the lake.
Simple enough, right? Who could complain about siphoning off a little water from a lake with about 1,200 cubic miles of it? Well, not so fast. Surrounding states were unhappy, and, in the early 1920s, Wisconsin -- joined later by New York and Michigan -- sued. They said the diversion lowered the lake by 6 inches, limiting their use and enjoyment of it.
Finally, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the diversion was legal and necessary, but capped it at 3,200 cubic feet per second (about 2.1 billion gallons a day). But that isn't the end of the story.
Seeking better water conservation practices, governors from the Great Lakes states in 2008 agreed to prevent any additional major Great Lakes diversions. The result of this compact signed by former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is that Illinois can keep the Chicago Diversion granted by the Supreme Court decision, but cannot request any additional water, thereby nixing your plan.
"We can't get two bites at the apple," Dan Injerd, of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources told the Greatlakesecho.org. "Just the one we've had all along."
And, it's not just us feeling the water pinch. If you've visited Chicago recently, you may have noticed that Lake Michigan is reaching historic low levels. If it drops much more, it will undo that engineering feat from a century ago and once more will send the Chicago River flowing into Lake Michigan. So, they wouldn't want to send us any more water even if they wanted to because that would lower the lake even more.
"The Army Corps of Engineers is so worried that they announced last week that drastic measures are going to be necessary if Lake Michigan drops six more inches," Henry Henderson, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in his blog on Dec. 20. "(That's) something that is within the realm of possibility if the drought that grips the region continues."
Read his entire piece at switchboard.nrdc.org, and stay tuned.
To whom does the song "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)" refer? Bonus: Who wrote the lyrics?
Answer to Tuesday's trivia: When Thurgood Marshall was born July 2, 1908, in Baltimore, his parents named him Throughgood. The grandson of a slave, he was named for his paternal grandfather, a man named "Marshall," who, when he joined the Union Army as a freeman, was asked to choose a first name, too. So, he adopted the name "Throughgood." But the name wasn't a "good" one for his young grandson, who, on Oct. 2, 1967, took his seat as the country's first black Supreme Court Justice. He later told an HBO interviewer, "I was named after him, but by the time I was in second grade, I got tired of spelling all that and shortened it."
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org