Three hundred feet beneath Chicago’s Loop, a well-disciplined gang executes The Perfect Crime. One thousand henchmen, sweating and swearing through dense Silurian dolomite, are digging tunnels —131 miles of tunnels. Most are wide enough for trains to pass through three abreast. The gang’s blasting shakes Loop offices, yet few Chicagoans even know the job is in progress. The police know, but they do not interfere. For the tunnels will not terminate under the vaults of Chicago’s banks. Not enough money would be involved.

This bizarre heist is code-named TARP Tunnel and Reservoir Plan. But people familiar with it just call it “Deep Tunnel.” It is the most expensive public works project of all time, expected to cost $11 billion. By comparison, the Alaska pipeline cost $9 billion.

Deep Tunnel is supposed to control floods and water pollution. Specifically, it seeks to rehabilitate Chicago’s urban canals, which, in some forgotten earlier life, were free-flowing rivers. They have come, over the years, to resemble open sewers, gruesome slurries of Morphic alkalinity. Deep Tunnel, if it works, will elevate them to the status of merely offensive.

So there’s a symmetrical beauty to this sting. No one can see the digging
taking place, since the Hole in the Ground Gang works out of sight—and no one will be able to tell the difference when it’s finished. At their most optimistic, TARP planners hope the “rivers” will be improved from their present dreary state (which Illinois officials delicately refuse to classify) to meet “secondary contact standards,” Illinois’ lowest water quality rating. “Secondary contact” allows for “brief. . . accidental exposure.” This means that should you happen to tumble in, you’ll be able to meet your Maker by drowning rather than dissolving. It also means that after the $11 billion is spent, the rivers, now used as sewers and industrial barge routes, will still be sewers and industrial barge routes. That won’t change at all.

The masterminds of the Chicago job don’t plan to stop there. Deep Tunnel
is a pilot for similar projects being considered for Boston, Philadelphia,
Milwaukee, San Francisco, and other cities with pollution problems like Chicago’s. If a TARP is spread under all of them, the price could go as high as $400 billion. To anyone who still believes people should at least be able to see the results of government expenditures, this is a vexing prospect. For it turns out that most of Deep Tunnel’s objectives could be reached through a series of less exotic methods. These options would be labor- rather than capital-intensive. Some would provide aesthetic improvements in neighborhoods. All would cost a fraction of what Deep Tunnel will.

Agent Concrete

The city of Chicago is a hydrogeological desert; the ultimate defoliant, concrete, has stripped the land on which the city sits of its ability to absorb rainwater. As in most cities, the rainwater runs off Chicago’s streets and parking lots into a “combined” sewer system, where it mixes with human wastes and industrial sludge.

In theory, the rain performs a cleansing function, washing the chemicals and garbage off the streets and into the city’s sewage treatment plants. Unfortunately, Chicago’s sewers, built in the early 1900s, have so little capacity that almost any precipitation causes them to overflow. So 100 times a year, the agency digging Deep Tunnel, the Metropolitan Sanitary
District of Greater Chicago (MSD), relieves the overflow by allowing it—sewage, street garbage and all—to back up into the city’s rivers.

The resulting miasma—clumps of bobbing guano, evil patches of seething gorp, revolting odors—is not in itself a health hazard. The water is already so laced with toxic chemicals that nothing, not even the germs and bacteria from the sewage, could live in it. Still, as Frank Dalton, MSD’s deputy chief engineer, puts it, “every four days, a million people crap in the rivers.” Ten times in the last 12 years, in fact, the overflows were so prodigious that MSD had to pump them into Lake Michigan—the source of the city’s drinking water. This was no casual task; in the late 1890s, Chicago’s rivers were reversed in order to carry pollution away from the lake, instead of toward it as God intended.

Deep Tunnel is supposed to hold the sewer overload in its enormous underground caverns. Then, after the rains stop, the foul waters will be pumped up to the city’s sewage treatment plants for cleansing. The huge matrix of tunnels—under construction since 1975 will be able to cork a grand total of about one quarter-inch of rain. Engineers call that “the first flush.” It is not the hormonal awakening that precedes a love affair, but the initial wave of rain that carries off the junk on the streets and dumps it, eventually, into the rivers. Catching the first flush will keep most of those “street pollutants” out of the waterways. But if it rains more than a quarter-inch, Deep Tunnel itself will overflow, meaning that raw sewage will still be jettisoned into the rivers. So TARP has a “Phase
II” project—huge surface reservoirs (in old stone quarries). With 20 times the capacity of the tunnels, the reservoirs will enable the system to retain all but the heaviest downpours. The reservoirs will also help control Chicago’s traditional basement flooding, which is caused by sewer backups.

No Coolies

Deep Tunnel’s cost has soared since it was first proposed, but the project
appears to be innocent of the customary cost overruns. The tunnels, the only part of the project solely under the control of the Metropolitan Sanitary District, were pegged at $1.2 billion in 1972. A recent General Accounting Office study put their cost at $2 billion, just about in cadence with inflation. “And remember,” boasts MSD president Nicholas Melas, “this is an energy-intensive project. We don’t have 15,000 coolies hacking away.”

The remaining billions will go for associated TARP projects. Included are a billion for the reservoirs, a billion for sewage treatment plant improvements, $1.6 billion to link suburban sewers to the network, $1.9 billion for interest, $640 million for “engineering, design, supervision and review.” (“Say, barber, do I need a haircut?”)

Two hostile GAO reports, however, have blasted TARP’s costs on the grounds that “inflation has taken its toll.” The announced projects don’t yet total $11 billion — but, “if history is any indication,” the GAO says, that is what they will cost by 1983, when most of the work is scheduled to begin.

These estimates are no doubt accurate, if not too low. But as an indictment of TARP, the GAO’s argument though a staple of cost overrun stories is a frayed sackcloth. Future inflated prices will be paid with future inflated dollars. If inflation suddenly lurched another 100 percent, Deep Tunnel would be priced at $22 billion. But the resources needed to buy it the percentage of our real GNP would not change. When projects like TARP escalate in sync with inflation, they do not “become more expensive.” They just acquire shock value.

And so rare is it that the public should actually receive a physical object in exchange for its funds instead of a hotel tab for a commission hearing, or a consultant’s report full of vacuous social generalizations—that even cost overruns might be tolerated. The drawback with Deep Tunnel is that it will be about as useful as the hearing or the consultant, as far as the people of Chicago are concerned.

Nothing Fishy

The way it was originally planned, Deep Tunnel was supposed to make Chicago’s reeking rivers “fishable and swimmable” by 1985. This talismanic phrase was the statutory goal of the Clean Water Act of 1972. In fact, that law dangled 75-percent federal funding in front of any project that promised to make waterways “fishable and swimmable.” It was in 1972, not coincidentally, that Chicago’s MSD proposed TARP. In 1975, the federal Office of Management and Budget said TARP could be funded, but only if split into two phases. This was because, to OMB’s analytic mind, tunnels and treatment plants are pollution-control devices and can be funded by the Environmental Protection Agency—but the surface reservoirs of “Phase 11” are flood-control devices. And as such, they could be spawned only by the Army Corps of Engineers.

This, however, caused a jurisdictional problem, since the Corps currently has charge over only rural flood projects. But the Corps is “frothing at the mouth,” in the words of one official, to extend its authority to cities—and it saw the invitation from Chicago’s sewer planners as its opening. Nevertheless, Corps participation in TARP was on shaky sod until MSD president Melas went to Washington to argue for $1 million to help the Corps study the need for the reservoirs “impartially and objectively.”‘ (“Say, barber, do I need a haircut?”) Actually, for only $1 million the government can’t expect a whole study. What it gets is a “plan of study.” The plan will reveal how the Corps proposes to spend the $9 million its Chicago planning chief, Richard Carlson, said is needed for the whole study.

Meanwhile, the “fishable and swimmable” clause has long since expired. It had become an annoyance anyway. You remember that if only the tunnels are built, and the “Phase II” reservoirs abandoned (a strong possibility, despite the Corps study), Chicago will keep dumping sewage into its rivers. This will happen whenever it rains more than a quarter of an inch—ten to 12 times a year. That’s more than enough damage to kill any fish and keep the rivers dead and disgusting. And even if all of the reservoirs are built, the rivers still won’t be “fishable” or “swimmable.” They won’t even be “smellable” —the continued presence of other pollutants in the river will assure that. So the project planners have lowered their sights to the present goal, “secondary contact,” which will be achieved, depending on whom you believe, either in Phase I or Phase II. Perhaps by the time Phase XXIV is reached, a salient fact will poke out: Sewer overflows are not the main cause of pollution in Chicago’s rivers. Sewage treatment plants are.

At most, 47 per cent of Chicago’s river pollution comes from sewer overflows, according to the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC), a powerless collection of government deep thinkers called into TARP scheming to maintain appearances. According to another consultant, less than a quarter of the rivers’ primary pollution comes from gagging sewers. This pollution arises from “oxydizable” compounds like ammonia, which combine with oxygen, robbing living things of their breath. Ammonia is emitted by the bacteria used to process sewage at treatment plants. The plants then discharge it into the rivers. One billion of TARP’s $11 billion will pay for treatment plant improvements designed to “fix” ammonia into less harmful (but still polluting) nitrates. But even if TARP is
completed, treatment plants will still be the rivers’ worst offenders.

TARP will do absolutely nothing about the most deadly form of pollution in Chicago’s waterways: toxins and heavy metals. They will skip unmolested through the sewers, tunnels, and, eventually, through the sewage treatment plants into the rivers. Deep Tunnel will merely intercept them at sewer overflow points and deposit them downstream at the treatment plants, away from the sensibilities of Loop office workers. These toxins and metals used to be the social contribution of industry alone. But now, the force of egalitarianism has distributed to every man the means with which to poison water.
Lead, for example, settles out of auto exhaust. Cadmium leaches from gardens, soaps, and bleaches. Pesticides splash off lawns and dainty flowers. All are washed into the sewers every time it rains, and most end up in the rivers.

Still, at industrial sources, where the toxins are localized and highly concentrated, they could be “pretreated” to keep them out of sewers. “Pretreatment is the only way to ever bring pollution under control,” says a NIPC planner. Chicago’s MSD deserves credit for supporting fairly stern pretreatment standards. But it’s afraid to push too hard for fear habitual polluters will pull up mistakes and go elsewhere. More congenial sewers are said to beckon in the South. Uniform national discharge standards were supposed to solve this problem. Ordered to promulgate such rules years ago, however, the EPA has buried them in endless re-study.

Meanwhile, no EPA funds can be used for pretreatment because, all sides agree, this should be part of industry’s cost of doing business. Of course, once the toxins are flushed down the public drain, there’s no limit to the tax dollars that can be sent chasing after them. Perhaps for this reason, TARP’s $640-million “review” does not even attempt to figure out how much of the toxin/metal load in Chicago’s rivers comes from industrial sources. EPA, the state environmental agency, NIPC, and MSD all admit they never opened the question. “It’s a fine, academic distinction where the chemicals come from,” said Dr. Cecil Lue-Hing, MSD’s research director. Apparently so—since Deep Tunnel does nothing about them whatever the source.

Slowing the Flush

If only the billions for TARP—or even its loose change—could go into a few simple, neighborhood-level projects. A combination of them could accomplish most of TARP’s goals, at a fraction of the cost. Most of these techniques are so rudimentary as to offend the sensibilities of modern technocrats. Much of the sewage overflow, for example, is caused by the rapid attack of the “first flush.” Anything that delays the arrival at the sewers of even part of the rainwater diminishes the problem.

The simplest means of accomplishing this is to disconnect downspouts on rain gutters. In large cities, architects traditionally run downspout pipes from the gutters on a building’s roof straight into the sewers. This practice assures that the collected rainwater arrives at the sewer at the same time, exaggerating the overload. Some MSD suburbs are disconnecting building downspouts, so that rainwater just splashes on the ground and must wend it way to the sewers. The highest cost estimate comes from Skokie, population 70,000, which says the work will cost $1.8 million. Projecting that over MSD’s jurisdiction, the cost could reach $115 million, about one tenth of a percent of TARP’s cost. Other sources say it would be far less. MSD, which could order member communities to disconnect, has left that matter to their discretion. Using no discretion at all, some towns require that the lines be tied to overworked sewers, presumably to avoid alarming homeowners who assume that a disconnected downspout automatically means a wet cellar.

There are other simple ideas for preventing the sewer backup. Large volumes of water could be retained on rooftops, to be released slowly after the rain stops. Chicago building codes, in fact, require new structures to retain at least six inches of rain. “But the codes are never enforced,” says a city source. Other buildings can be converted to hold the rain—although, say roofing contractors, old structures would first require repairs.

If urban building codes took rain caused pollution as seriously as TARP’s planners, numerous other water-retention systems could be established at low cost. Parking lots are a primary cause of rain-runoff havoc. Instead of impervious sheets of concrete, they can be made of grids of concrete bars, with small patches of soil boxed in between. Water would percolate into the ground through the patches. Converting vacant land to green space—parks, gardens, or just tracts of grass in the middle of a block—has the same effect. And on any green slope can be built “Dutch trenches.” These are slits, filled with sand or gravel and topped with sod. They absorb rainwater readily, but release it slowly.

These techniques—some of which improve neighborhood aesthetics also create blue-collar jobs. GAO says Deep Tunnel will foster only 1,800 jobs at its peak, mostly for specialists—at an “investment cost” of $1.8 million per job. This aspect of the project proved most inconvenient to Chicago’s ruling elite, the Democratic ward committeemen. TARP gave them no jobs to dole out, and almost no chance to bid for sweetheart contracts. “Soft technology” finds an unexpected ally with this crowd.

Not only would water-retention reduce the need to dump sewage into the rivers, it would also help control the flooding of basements caused by the sewer backups. “We could cut flooding problems in half in a few years using these techniques,” says one expert. Deep Tunnel will do a more thorough job, but not until some fine morning in the 1990s. In the meantime, Corps planners hope no one steals their thunder by stemming the floods ahead of schedule. Most of the benefits in Deep Tunnel’s favorable “cost/benefit” ratio of 1.4 to 1 are based on the Corps’ presumption that flooding does $450 million worth of damage to Chicago every year.

But wait a minute—what was that figure? $450 million a year? That’s equivalent to the destruction of a town with 10,000 homes—about the same as the damage estimate for Hurricane David. It might make the papers. It’s preposterous to think that such massive losses could be caused by water seeping into basements, unless average Chicago working people are storing thousands of Renoirs and Monets in their cellars. If the Corps were right, Chicago would suffer $5 billion in damages just waiting for Deep Tunnel’s valves to be opened. But of course, the Corps isn’t even close. MSD itself puts the annual loss at $6 million to $12 million; GAO calls it a still-modest $20 million.

‘Make no little plans’

The alternatives to TARP are overlooked because there is no Office of Miscellaneous Social Benefits. “Everybody does only what his agency is supposed to do, because no one agency is in charge of comprehensive social planning,” says one of NIPC’s erstwhile idealists. MSD’s job is to dig sewers: break out the shovels. The Corps is supposed to move earth: look out for the dozers. Could anyone reasonably expect MSD to forego billions in grants and influence so that another agency could go around building parks and shoring up roofs?

“Every Deep Tunnel study defined as its goal finding a project, a single project, that could stop the overflows, stop pumping into the lake, and reduce flooding,” says Dan White, the GAO team leader. “Obviously no single solution but a billion-dollar construction job can do all these things. Low-tech options were excluded by definition.”

Nevertheless, to get its million to study the possibility of building the reservoirs, the Corps has vowed that, after all this time, it will be the one to “cost out” the “low-tech” options. Perhaps the Corps will earnestly assess the value of having someone else disconnect downspouts, instead of having the Corps move $900-million worth of soil. (“Say, barber, should I switch to a toupee?”) They promise to give it every effort. The Corps’ Chicago economics chief, Harvey Kurzon, says the study will assign “equal treatment to every idea that’s been proposed, so no one feels slighted.” Among ideas to be treated equally, he has insisted repeatedly, is a proposal that Chicago’s rain problems be solved by putting a dome over the city. For $9 million, the Corps will let you know whether people who want to put domes over cities should be slighted.

Even if the cheaper methods were endorsed, the Clean Water Act makes no provisions for funding them. It funds only “treatment systems.” Since other solutions prevent the problems at their source, they do not qualify as treatment. EPA’s tunnel vision does not even extend to some mechanical techniques like “instream aeration.” Aerators are bubblers, like an aquarium’s, that slip fish some air. They brought salmon back to the Thames River for $200 million. TARP includes $32 million for aerators, but the Illinois environmental agency has had to underwrite them itself, with no help from the federal EPA. “EPA considers aerators to be in the waterway, isolated from the discharge pipe,” says Mike Mauzy, director of the state’s environmental program, “and hence not part of a treatment system.” The inexpensive aerators, according to a well-informed engineer, will provide almost all TARP’s visible improvements to the rivers. No wonder EPA wants no part of them.

Seine It’s Not

When Deep Tunnel is finished and the rivers are clean enough to stand close to, the fury of progress will stop. “They were built as sewers, and that’s what they’ll still be,” said the engineer. You see, Chicago’s river system is lined, sides and bottom, with concrete. There is no “shore,” and the featureless vessel offers no places for fish to spawn or live. Parts of the rivers are walled in behind berms. Nearly all of the system winds grudgingly through the cracking, blistering industrial stanchions of Chicago. There are no charming riverfront cafes at which to sip banana daiquiris. In fact, there’s no riverfront, and there still won’t be after TARP.

“Nobody in his right mind would recreate on an industrial canal when Lake Michigan is right there,” says Mauzy, adding that in some 1972 studies, “there was a brief cost/ benefit analysis of how the rivers would be used later. But I haven’t seen anything on it since. They dropped it fast.”

One expert fears the sole aesthetic improvement from TARP will be a color-scheme change, from Grime Grey to Gorp Green. This is because, when the flushing volumes of stormwater are eliminated, the rivers will be nearly quiescent. “Algae will take over, as it does in any still water, and dead algae stinks worse than sewage,” he says. The minimum “scouring velocity” to stop algae growth is eight feet per second. After Deep Tunnel the Chicago River will flow at one-tenth of a foot per second, he says, “slower than your bathtub.”

The dark at the end of Deep Tunnel puts environmentalists in the awkward position of opposing a water-quality project. The Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and several Chicago area environmental groups either oppose the digging or demand
indefinite moratoria. They fear Deep Tunnel will be the Tellico Dam of water pollution control, spending so much for so little that anti-environmentalists will make it the punchline of jeering jokes. Any water-pollution control project will get shot down as “just another Deep Tunnel.” “I’ve been with this project 12 years,” says one high official, “and I still can’t figure out what we’re buying for our money, except an abstract standard.”

But officially, TARP’s champions are not wavering. MSD’s Melas insists he could not abandon the tunnels even if he wished. “My legal mandate, to reach the water quality standard, has not been changed,” he says. At least the abstraction is well served. And, as a field-level MSD supervisor told me, “You might as well take the federal money. They practically leave it for you in a bus station locker. If we don’t take it, and use it in our city, they’ll just waste it somewhere else.” Dig we might as well. ■

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook has published three novels and eight nonfiction books, mostly recently It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1979 to 1981.