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Deep Tunnel -- finished after 30 years, $3 billion

Thursday, July 13, 2006
Pioneer Press
by JOHN HUSTON | STAFF WRITER

It may be Chicago's version of the Egyptian Pyramids or the Great Wall of China.
But you will probably never see it.
As far as engineering feats go, the Deep Tunnel project has few rivals in regards to timespan and money.
After 30 years and more than $3 billion, the first phase of what is formally called the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan has been completed.
Technology developed specifically for the project, such as tunnel boring machines designed to spiral through limestone, was later used to create the Chunnel underneath the English Channel.
In Chicago, 350 feet below the surface, a series of pipes snake underground -- from Wilmette to the Loop, over to LaGrange and up to O'Hare Airport, as well as a system in southern Cook County.
The goal was to prevent sewage and stormwater from spilling into rivers and canals.
Before the project started, one inch of rainfall during a storm could inundate the combined sewer system with 5 billion gallons of water. The problem was that the sewage treatment system was designed to treat fewer than 2 billion gallons a day.
Without open fields or wetlands in the dense urban sprawl of Chicagoland, the waste water was sent into rivers and canals -- an environmental concern which also led to basement flooding.
In 1972, engineers from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the City of Chicago, Cook County and state agencies developed the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan. The United States Environmental Protection Agency provided nearly 75 percent of the funding for the project, which broke ground in 1976.
Nearly a decade later, in 1985, the first 31 miles of tunnel -- from Wilmette to south suburban Hodgkins -- was completed and put into service. Other tunnel systems were constructed underneath the Des Plaines River, from O'Hare Airport south to LaGrange, and under the Cal-Sag Channel and Little Calumet River.
Reservoirs next
Now that the tunnels are finished, the second phase of the project -- the reservoir portion -- will take center stage.
Three huge reservoirs -- one at O'Hare, another in McCook and one in Thornton -- will be able to hold nearly 16 billion gallons of wastewater, and are expected to prevent flooding and pollution.
The first reservoir was completed at O'Hare in 1998.
"If we continue to receive federal dollars to stay on schedule with this project, the McCook reservoir will hopefully be completed by 2015," said Terrence O'Brien, president of the Water Reclamation District's Board of Commissioners.
The Thornton reservoir will likely be completed by 2023.
That makes the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan a 50-year project, from inception to completion.
But the tunnel portion of the project has already begun to show its benefit, said Peggy Bradley, spokeswoman for the Water Reclamation District.
A recent study shows there were 10 species of fish in the Chicago and Calumet river systems in 1974. By the time the first Deep Tunnel section was opened in 1985, that number had already grown to more than 40.
By 2005, there were nearly 70 species of fish in the two rivers' systems.
"The fish can't live in the river if it's dirty and filled with sewage," Bradley said. "The increase in the number of fish in the last 30 years is a great indicator."
Cameron Davis, president of Alliance for Great Lakes, agreed in Deep Tunnel's apparent success.
"It's already proven that it's benefiting water quality in the region, which is our lifeblood, so that's been really important," Davis said. "We've seen fish come back and we've seen the river and the lakefront become places that people gather and flock to rather than avoid, and that's been good for Chicago and the suburbs."
But he also stressed that more needs to be done.
"Will Deep Tunnel solve all our problems?" Davis asked. "If you ask the (Metropolitan Water Reclamation District) you will never get them to say yes. And they shouldn't."
He said two main objectives need to be followed to ensure environmental gains continue, to capitalize on Deep Tunnel's success and to prevent further top-dollar expenditures.
'Green' infrastructure
One of the objectives is to implement "green" infrastructure, the rooftop garden on Chicago's City Hall, for example, as well as other similar projects at O'Hare Airport and McCormick Place.
"What would have gone to a treatment plan is now going to a garden to water it," Davis said. "You use the garden as a way to handle storm water and waste water."
New "green" advancements are being created that should to be incorporated into the infrastructure, he added, such as green gutters, green curbs and permeable pavement, which is being experimented with in Chicago's 48th Ward on the North Side.
Such pavement allows water to seep through and into the underlying earth, instead of collecting in the sewer to further burden the treatment system.
The other objective will fall directly on the Water Reclamation District, Davis said.
"If we want to continue to see improved water quality we need to get serious about disinfecting waste water," he said.
Many metropolitan areas disinfect their waste water supply, but Chicago is not one of them, Davis said.
While Deep Tunnel is a success, the future needs to incorporate less brick-and-mortar in its solution to clean water, he added.
"At the end of the day, nature has already figured out how to engineer our life support systems in this region and around the planet," Davis said. "The more we try to mimic instead of working against those natural systems the better. And the less expensive, usually."


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