Chicago River: President's Hometown Joke Underscores Choice Between Dead Zone or Clean Waterway Future

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I was truly pleased to see President Obama visit with the beleaguered staff at the Environmental Protection Agency this week. Given the withering and unfair attacks launched at the EPA from some in Congress who would undo the protections that Americans have come to rely on for their health and safety, it was good to see the President standing with the people charged with safeguarding our air, water and health.

There was one section of the speech that caught my eye. Said the President:

"In my hometown, the Chicago River -- you probably could not find anything alive in there -- (laughter) -- four decades ago.  Now it’s thriving..."

In Chicago, NRDC has been engaged in a bunch of fights on behalf of our hometown waterways; among the most prominent is the effort to get action on the rapidly encroaching menace of invasive Asian carp making their way into the Chicago River and Great Lakes.

It is my fervent hope that the folks in various federal agencies tasked with keeping the invasive fish out of the River and Great Lakes are paying attention to what the President said about a thriving, clean river in Chicago.

It is important that they do…after all, it was just a few weeks ago that the Army Corps of Engineers released a laundry list of “tools” that could be employed in the war on Asian Carp that included the “creation” of a “dead zone” in the Chicago River system.

Think about that for a second.

After decades of effort to rejuvenate the waterways that were once merely a convenient cesspool for the deposition of offal and carcasses from the millions of livestock that met their end in Chicago’s famed Union Stock Yards, the idea of intentionally developing a section of the river that could not support any life is thoroughly shocking. But the Corps is hardly the only group to make such a galling suggestion. 

I wonder if anyone would have the guts to advance such claptrap related to the nation’s other waterways. I fear that the Chicago River’s gruesome reputation leaves it open to incredible misuse simply because we do not expect better. But while there is still much to do to right the river, the President is correct to note that the green waters cutting through our fair city have come a long, long, long way.

Back in 1992, while I was Commissioner of the Environment for the City, a notable disaster forced many to change their minds about the river. When a hole was accidentally blown into the one of the many tunnel systems that lay under the Loop and surrounding business districts, the river flooded the entire downtown. My staff and I went into basement after basement to sample what we assumed would be toxic chemical laden remnants of the deluge. Instead of dangerous waste, we found schools of flopping fish in the lower levels of most buildings. Indeed, the river has been supporting growing and diverse fish populations for over 25 years.

The Clean Water Act holds out the goal of American waters that are both “fishable and swimmable.” In the Windy City, we have done a great job of moving closer to that fishable goal. And recent changes, like the recent MWRD disinfection decision, leave me hopeful about swimmable too. However, all of that can be quickly undone should we choose to look the other way as short-sighted solutions to our growing invasive species problem move us backwards or the pro-pollution folks in Congress swinging at the EPA get their way in rolling back the Clean Water Act. Just look back at old descriptions of the Chicago River to see what is at stake.


Casting Towards the Skyline image of Canal Origins Park by reallyboring via Flickr