But with the unofficial start of the boating season just weeks away, operators and owners of the most popular boat tours are bracing for a possibility that once was unthinkable — closure of the Chicago River.
As state and federal officials hunt down the elusive Asian carp, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at the financial and environmental costs of closing navigational locks in Chicago waterways and shutting down the Chicago River to boat traffic as many as four days a week. Working under intense scrutiny from Washington, D.C., and around the Midwest, the Army Corps intends to issue its recommendations this month and hopes to have them in place by April 1.
Some say closing the locks and river is critical to stopping Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes and threatening the region's multibillion-dollar commercial and recreational fishing industries. But boat operators warn that even a part-time closure would be "catastrophic" for the iconic tour boats and charter cruises that are a summertime staple in Chicago.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think our company would be so severely threatened by a fish," said Chip Collopy, president of Shoreline Sightseeing tours, a family-run business that has navigated Chicago's rivers since 1939.
Collopy said his company has "a lot to lose." So does Chicago, after spending millions over the last decade to rebuild its riverwalk into a civic landmark.
"We are very concerned that closing the Chicago River to boats might greatly affect tourism and the local businesses that rely on it," said Kate Sansone, a spokeswoman for Mayor Richard . Sansone cautioned against predicting what the Army Corps will recommend.
Chicago's tour boats are caught in a win-at-all-costs battle against the Asian carp, a voracious and prolific invasive species that has destroyed native fish populations and disrupted ecosystems on its 15-year march up the Illinois River. DNA research indicates Asian carp are now poised to enter the Great Lakes, a nightmare scenario for biologists who fear the carp could irreparably harm the largest freshwater group of lakes in the world.
With so much at stake, a growing faction that includes six Great Lakes states and several prominent environmental advocacy groups have asked federal lawmakers and the U.S. Supreme Court to force Illinois to close locks near downtown Chicago and in the Calumet-Sag Channel to try to keep out Asian carp.
Last month, the Army Corps laid out three scenarios where the locks would be closed to boating and barge traffic; the options ranged from closing locks four days a week to less restrictive closures of one or two weeks a month.
Lock closures alone would be a significant blow to Chicago's tour and charter businesses, many of which travel between the lock near Navy Pier to gain access to Lake Michigan. But Army Corps officials are also debating whether to prohibit boating on the Chicago River when the locks are closed, the Army Corps' Major Gen. John Peabody said, giving wildlife biologists the space to go after Asian carp using nets, electrical current or even fish toxins.
"No definitive answer has been made yet, although we're considering these options very seriously," Peabody told a gathering in Chicago recently. "All options remain on the table."
Closing the locks is "going to kill everything in downtown Chicago," said Craig Wenokur, managing director of operations for Wendella boats, which has 140 employees and will begin its 75th year this month.
Wendella operates architectural tours, water taxis and several popular tour rides that take passengers from the Chicago River, through the controlling lock near Navy Pier, and onto Lake Michigan. Wenokur said closing the river and the lock would trigger layoffs at Wendella and at rival companies, reduce services, and likely force some businesses to shut down.
"Closing the lock and river is such a drastic step," said Terry Johnson of Chicago Line Cruises, who raises questions about the validity of the DNA research and the logic behind closing the locks to keep them out.
"This whole thing is based on speculation and politics," Johnson said. "We still haven't found a (Asian carp) within 40 miles of the lake, but we want to shut all this down?"
While the region's shipping and barge industry would surely suffer the biggest economic hit if locks are closed, the impact on tour boats would be a civic blow to the redeveloping riverfront, said Jim Farrell of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.
"I don't think the city would have spent all those taxpayer dollars on the riverwalk if they had any indication of the prospect of lock closure," Farrell said.
Each of the dozen or so tour boat and charter cruise companies in Chicago employs a few dozen to several hundred people. Some boats host weddings and special events, and they provide tours that rank among the highlights for visitors to Chicago.
"How do you sell this wonderful city to visitors if you have to shut down the river?" Collopy asked. "You spend your life doing this, taking people on rides around the city, and you wake up one day and it could all be gone. I can't believe it."