First victory for the Chicago River: Pollution Control Board finds that recreational use must be protected

 NRDC and its coalition partners won an important first-stage victory last week in our battle to make the Chicago river safe for recreation.   Over loud protests from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the Pollution Control Board found what’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s ever looked at the River on a sunny summer weekend:  people are using it for canoeing, kayaking, rowing, fishing, and power boating.  Since people are enjoying these kinds of recreation on the River, the Board said in its draft ruling, these uses will need to be protected through appropriate water quality standards and discharge limits. 

The District’s position, to oversimplify it only a little, is that the only recreational activity appropriate for the River is toilet flushing.  Its pitch to the Pollution Control Board – the agency considering Illinois EPA’s proposed regulations to designate the new recreational uses -- is that the Chicago River and its associated waterways were engineered 100 years ago to convey Chicago’s sewage away from Lake Michigan.  So why should anything change now?  Once a cesspool, always a cesspool.

 Fortunately, the Pollution Control Board and Illinois EPA had enough vision, and understanding of federal law, to reject that rather crabbed view of our City’s waterways.  In fact, even if we all decided collectively that it was a great idea to use the Chicago River as a sewage canal, the Clean Water Act sensibly does not allow that.  That law, passed shortly after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and people decided they’d had pretty much enough of polluted urban rivers, requires that we set a goal of making all of our waters in the US fishable and swimmable.  We’re still somewhat off from that goal in the Chicago area waterways (although perhaps not in all of them), but that doesn’t mean we get to throw up our hands and stop trying.    The Board properly recognized that even if swimming isn’t do-able everywhere right now, lots of other recreational activities are – and they’re happening pretty consistently on the River right now.  The Board cited extensive supporting testimony from our coalition partners Openlands and Friends of the Chicago River, as well as the City of Chicago and others, that recreational use of the River has increased substantially in recent years as people gain more and more access through new boat launches and other water access facilities.

The Board’s ruling is only a first step.  It was issued on “first notice,” which means that the public now has 45 days to comment on it (comments can be mailed in to the Board at the Chicago address found here – address comments to Hearing Officer Marie Tipsord and refer to case number “R08-9 Subdocket A”).    Subsequently, the Board will issue it on “second notice” to a special committee of the Illinois General Assembly that gets to weigh in on administrative rules before they’re final. 

And after that, the Board will turn to the critical issue of whether, in order to protect the health all of the canoers and kayakers and boaters and anglers that are on the water, the District needs to disinfect the sewage it dumps into the River.  A no-brainer, you say?  Well, so do we.  But then, we would have said it was a no-brainer that the City’s shining waterways have some better uses than transporting our sewage to St. Louis.   So once again, NRDC and our coalition partners  will plunge in and prove to the Board, we hope, the rather common-sense proposition that protecting River recreators involves keeping germs out of the water.   One down, one to go.