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The Calumet River refers to a system of heavily industrialized rivers and canals in the region between the neighborhood of South Chicagomarker in Chicago, Illinoismarker, and the city of Gary, Indianamarker.


The name "Calumet" refers to the calumet, an elaborate pipe that served as a universal sign of peace among the Illiniwek, and which was presented to Pere Marquette in 1673.

The area is extremely flat and the course and even the direction of the river system has changed repeatedly. The low gradient gives the river only a very small current. Before human alteration, water flowed westward from LaPorte County, Indiana along the Little Calumet River, made a complete turn, and flowed east along the Grand Calumet into Lake Michiganmarker at the Miller section of Gary, Indianamarker.

Industrial development in the Calumet River area began around the 1870s, and by 1890 the West reach of the Grand Calumet River was heavily polluted with the waste of steel mills, foundries, a meat packing plant, and glue and cornstarch factories. Industry continued to spread along the East reach of the river between 1890 and 1910, with similar results. These decades of unrestricted pollution have left the river sediments highly contaminated to this day.

In September 2008, areas of Lakemarker and Porter Countymarker, Indiana, were declared national disaster areas. The Calumet River breached its levee and flooded portions of the towns of Munstermarker and Highlandmarker, Indiana.

Segments of the Calumet River system

Map of area rivers

Calumet River

The Calumet River, on the south side of Chicagomarker, originally simply drained Lake Calumetmarker to Lake Michigan. A canal extending it, legendarily claimed to have been created by voyageurs at the site of a frequent portage, was dug connecting the two Calumet Rivers at the point where the name now changes from Grand to Little.

Grand Calumet River

The Grand Calumet River, originating in the east end of Gary, Indianamarker, flows 13 miles (21 km) through the cities of Gary, East Chicagomarker and Hammondmarker. The majority of the river's flow drains into Lake Michiganmarker via the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canalmarker, sending about per second (44 m³/s) of water into the lake. Today, a large portion of the river's flow originates as municipal and industrial effluent, cooling and process water and storm water overflows. Although discharges have been reduced, a number of contaminants continue to impair the area.

Little Calumet River

The Little Calumet River flows through or borders the towns of Blue Islandmarker, Dixmoormarker, Phoenixmarker, Riverdalemarker, Harveymarker, Calumet Citymarker, Lansingmarker, Doltonmarker, South Hollandmarker in Illinois and Hammondmarker, Munstermarker, Griffithmarker, Highlandmarker, Garymarker, Lake Stationmarker, Portagemarker, Burns Harbormarker, Portermarker, and Chestertonmarker in Indiana. The Little Calumet flows into the Calumet River and Cal-Sag Canal. The Little Calumet has of river and tributaries and drains .

The Little Calumet River has been undergoing construction of a $200 million flood control and recreation project by the Chicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since 1990. The project is expected to be complete in 2010. The project includes construction of of levees and floodwalls, a control structure at Hart Ditch, and almost of hiking trails. Additionally, seven miles (11 km) of the river channel is being relocated to allow better water flow, and highway bridges are being modified to permit unobstructed flow of water. A flood warning system is also being implemented. When complete, the project will protect over 9,500 homes and businesses in the towns of Gary, Griffith, Hammond, and Munster in Indiana, and prevent nearly $11 million in flood damage annually. On Septermber 15, 2008, the remnants of Hurricane Ike released heavy rain which flooded the banks of the Little Calumet River. Houses and strip malls in northern Munster and southern Hammond were evacuated. Hundreds of homes were damaged due to flooding. Recently, a new levee, along Northcote Ave in Munster, is being built to protect residents from future floods.

Cal-Sag Channel

The Cal-Sag Channel (short for "Calumet-Saganashkee Channel") is a navigation canal in southern Cook Countymarker, Illinoismarker. It serves as a channel between the Little Calumet River and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. It is 16 miles (26 km) long and was dug over an 11-year period, from 1911 until 1922.

The Cal-Sag Channel serves barge traffic in what was an active zone of heavy industry in the far southern neighborhoods of the city of Chicago, Illinoismarker and adjacent suburbs. As of 2006 it is also used more as a conduit for wastewater from southern Cook County, including the Chicago-area Deep Tunnel Project, into the Illinois Waterway. It is also used by pleasure crafts in the summer time.

The western 4.5 miles (7.3 km) of the channel flow through the Palos Hills Forest Preserves, a large area of parkland operated by Cook County Forest Preserve District.

The Cal-Sag Channel served as the rowing venue for the 1959 Pan American Games.

Pollution in the Grand Calumet

Suffering from over a century of environmental neglect, The Grand Calumet River is highly polluted. Historically, the Grand Calumet River supported highly diverse, globally unique fish and wildlife communities. Today, remnants of this diversity are found in the Gibson Woods and Pine nature preserves. These areas contain tracks of dune and swale topography and associated rare plant and animals species, such as Franklin's ground squirrel, Blanding's turtle, the glass lizard and the Black-crowned Night Heron, among others. The problems mentioned above, however, have greatly impaired the river. It has been listed as one of the 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AoC) since 1986. AoC's are designated by having an impairment in at least one of fourteen beneficial uses. The Grand Calumet is the only AoC to be impaired on all fourteen. These impairments include total fish consumption restrictions, beach closings, fish tumors or deformities, animal deformities or reproductive problems, and loss or degradation of fish and wildlife habitat, benthos, phytoplankton, and zooplankton populations, among others.

The largest extent of the river's impairment comes from the historical sediment contamination by the industrial activities already mentioned. Today, sediments on the river bottom are "among the most contaminated and toxic that have ever been reported." Only sludge worms inhabit the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, indicating that severe pollution exists. The Grand Calumet suffers from contamination from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heavy metals, such as mercury, cadmium, chromium and lead. Additional problems include high fecal coliform bacteria levels, biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and suspended solids, oil and grease. These contaminants originate from both point and nonpoint sources.

Nonpoint sources

  • Contaminated sediment: The Grand Calumet River and Indiana Harbor and Canal contain 5 to 10 million cubic yards (3.9 to 7.7 million m³) of contaminated sediment up to 20 feet (6 m) deep. Contaminants include toxic compounds (e.g., PAHs, PCBs and heavy metals) and conventional pollutants (e.g., phosphorus, nitrogen, iron, magnesium, volatile solids, oil and grease).
  • Industrial waste site runoff: Stormwater runoff and leachate from 11 of 38 waste disposal and storage sites in the AoC, located within 0.2 miles (300 m) of the river, are degrading the water quality. Contaminants include oil, heavy metals, arsenic, PCBs, PAHs and lead.
  • CERCLA Sites: There are 52 sites in the AoC listed in the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability System (CERCLA). Five of these sites are Superfund sites on the National Priorities List.
  • Hazardous waste sites under RCRA: There are 423 hazardous waste sites in the AoC regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), such as landfills or surface impoundments, where hazardous waste is disposed. Twenty-two of these sites are treatment, storage and disposal facilities.
  • Underground storage tanks (USTs): There are more than 460 underground storage tanks in the AoC. More than 150 leaking tank reports have been filed for the Lake County section of the AoC since mid-1987.
  • Atmospheric deposition: Atmospheric deposition of toxic substances from fossil fuel burning, waste incineration and evaporation enter the AoC through direct contact with water, surface water runoff and leaching of accumulated materials deposited on land. Toxins from this source include dioxins, PCBs, insecticides and heavy metals.
  • Urban runoff: Rain water passing over paved urban areas washes grease, oil and toxic organics such as PCBs and PAHs into the surface waters.
  • Contaminated groundwater: Groundwater contaminated with organic compounds, heavy metals and petroleum products contaminates surface waters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‎ estimates that at least 16.8 million US gallons (64,000 m³) of oil float on top of groundwater beneath the AoC.

Point sources of contaminants

  • Industrial and Municipal Wastewater Discharges: Three steel manufacturers contribute 90 percent of industrial point source discharges to river. One chemical manufacturer also discharges into the river. Permitted discharges include arsenic, cadmium, cyanide, copper, chromium, lead and mercury. Three municipal treatment works (Gary, Hammond and East Chicago Sanitary Districts) discharge treated domestic and industrial wastewater.
  • Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs): Fifteen CSOs contribute untreated municipal waste, including conventional and toxic pollutants, to the river. Annually, CSO outfalls discharge an estimated 11 billion US gallons (42,000,000 m³) of raw wastewater into the harbor and river. Approximately 57% of the annual CSO volume is discharged within eight miles (13 km) of Lake Michigan, resulting in nearshore fecal coliform contamination.


  1. Project Management Plan
  2. Our Community & Flooding - Federal Programs
  3. USACE Chicago Dist - Little Calumet River Home
  4. SpringerLink - Journal Article

External Sources

See also

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