Chicago River’s New Direction

Chicago River

Venture along the banks of the Chicago River in certain areas, and it’s like you’re miles away from the city. At River Park, near Foster and California Avenues, the scene is bursting with wildlife and recreational activity.

Kayakers are paddling down the waterway. Mallards and geese are floating around. An angler reels in about a two-foot long common carp. A giant snap turtle pokes his head out of the brownish water. But that’s the thing. The water is brown. Do you really want to swim in it?

Former Mayor Richard J. Daley once, perhaps half-jokingly, said he envisioned the day Chicagoans could do just that. That day is one step closer to reality thanks to this month’s directive from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to Illinois officials. Clean the river up, they ordered, or else.

“There’s no specific deadline, but if the state is not inclined to take action, we’ll step in and take action ourselves,” said EPA Regional Administrative Director Susan Hedman.

The directive theoretically puts to rest a long-simmering dispute between environmental activists and water officials: whether or not to disinfect the water.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is at the center of the debate. The agency manages the region’s waterways, and most of Cook County’s wastewater. Sewage from homes and businesses flows into and gets partially treated at one of seven treatment facilities. The remaining bacteria-laden water is then discharged into the river; more than a billion gallons every day.

Geese in the Chicago River

The EPA’s ruling will require disinfection, which is a process that kills the bacteria in the water; for the North Branch, South Branch, and Calumet Sag Channel. It would force two of the treatment facilities to disinfect. But it exempts the largest one, in Stickney, which the EPA believes will bring down costs.

“Virtually every other city disinfects. They do so with populations and income levels below Chicago, so it’s perfectly feasible for it to happen here,” said Hedman.

She says that with disinfection, and the completion of the decades-long construction of deep tunnels and reservoirs to manage storm water runoff, the river will be safe enough for swimming and other activities.

“Inter-tubing, jet skiing, the day will come where you can do an Eskimo roll and feel it was safe,” said Hedman.

But Tom Granato, who is in charge of research and monitoring at the Water Reclamation District, disagrees and says he was caught off guard by the EPA’s decision.

“The EPA is trying to change the conversation from the safety of the current uses to looking at uses that aren’t currently occurring,” said Granato.

The MWRD has reportedly spent millions over the years advocating against disinfection, saying it’ll be too costly to taxpayers, won’t improve public health, and that the river might never be safe for so-called “primary contact” activities, like skiing and swimming. But Granato says studies have indicated it is safe for activities like canoeing and kayaking.

“We undertook a long program of study that showed us that level of risk in our waterways is not any different than the level of risk in any other waterway,” said Granato.

Water Reclamation Board Commissioner Debra Shore disagrees, and says that as the times change, so too must the river.

“In my view, swimming isn’t the issue, it’s can it be better than it is today? And the answer is clearly yes,” said Shore.

Sen. Mark Kirk at the Chicago River on May 22, 2011.

The river cleanup has bipartisan support in Washington. Both Senators Durbin and Kirk say they hope federal money will help pay for disinfection.

The EPA cites a total cost of about $241 million for the disinfection system, plus $10 million a year to operate it. In a worst case scenario, according to the EPA, it would mean only a few dollars per month for Cook County taxpayers.

But Granato says the cost of disinfecting would cause the agency to have to lift a state-imposed 5 percent property tax cap, and that it would take money away from MWRD’s other initiatives.

“We cannot currently finance effluent disinfection in addition to capital improvement plants we’re trying to implement. The treatment plants are 80 years old,” said Granato.

The Illinois Chamber of Commerce is skeptical of the EPA’s move. It sees disinfection as an added burden to barges and other commercial vessels that use the waterways to transport tons of goods and raw materials.

“The U.S. EPA is not taking into account the unintended consequences of encouraging people to swim in commercially navigable waterways. We don’t allow our kids to play on highways, railroad tracks; we shouldn’t encourage children and families to play on commercial waterways,” said Gideon Blustein, director of the Chamber’s Infrastructure Council.

Turtle in Chicago River

But the EPA believes the commercial can co-exist with the recreational, and the natural. It’s up to the state, specifically an obscure quasi-legislative body known as the Pollution Control Board, to enforce the rules.

A representative there says they will take the EPA’s ruling into advisement when they make a final decision about the Chicago River, but that it’s not the only factor they are considering.

If the board says no to disinfection, it could result in a protracted legal battle between state vs. federal law; which means that the process of making the river clean enough to swim in could move about as fast as our friend, the snap turtle, who leisurely lopes around his favorite river hangout near Foster and California.

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