The Mississippi River and its tributaries have evolved to a landscape of production due to its scale and topographic conditions. The natural and manmade water corridors serve as a form of infrastructure. The processes of energy production, agricultural production and waste management rely on the various waterways that compose the Mississippi River Basin. The main sources of energy production, natural gas, nuclear and coal utilize steam for electricity generation and require easy access to massive amounts of fresh water. The cycle of water consumption by power plants elevates water temperatures, lowers oxygen levels and introduces toxins. This has a direct impact on river and gulf ecologies. As a society, we largely ignore the externalities produced by energy consumption. Cities have adopted an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality pushing power plants further and further away from populated centers. In Chicago, hundred-year old coal plants are being closed within the city’s boundary due to health risks but the increased consumption of natural gas and nuclear energy pose their own unique hazards.
Chicago straddles the watersheds of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. By engineering the reverse flow of the Chicago River, the city of Chicago is interconnected to the vast productive network that flows south. High yield agricultural land and ease of transport fueled the twentieth century growth of Chicago and its ongoing sprawl across the flat land supporting the city. Chicago’s regional population of 9.4 million and industrial development is primarily located in the river basin in comparison to the lake watershed. A superimposed network of pipelines and high-voltage electrical transmission lines connect points of production to the areas of settlement and industry. Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal, the great engineering project that connects the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River and Illinois River, is mostly seen in glimpses as one moves along roadways since limited access points provide direct contact to the water’s edge.