Cleaning the Chicago River: Time for MWRD to get on board

We might be looking at a new chapter in the laborious battle over disinfection of the Chicago River as one of the most powerful participants in the drama begins to assert itself more strongly. The USEPA has discreetly, but effectively, made their wishes for a waterway that fulfills the requirements of the Clean Water Act known in the form of a letter submitted to the Illinois Pollution Board as part of its historically-long-running proceedings over the future of the river.  They join the State of Illinois, City of Chicago, and a host of NGOs in the push to bring the waterway in line with almost every other river in North America by decontaminating the effluent dumped into it.

Standing alone, but obdurately, on the other side is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation district, a shadowy elected body independent of the City, County, and State in its management of the regional water system. Their taxing powers have fueled a multimillion dollar campaign to continue dumping water rife with intestinal miasma from their water treatment plants directly into the river. (The Chicago News Cooperative and New York Times recently noted that those tax dollars also go towards an increasingly well-paid staff.)

Years ago they advanced the bricked-over river in Brussels as an appropriate precedent for our own urban waterway. But though the District’s vision has not changed, that European river is being uncovered, cleaned, and disinfected.

Even if the dated picture of the Chicago River advanced by the District as a ditch used solely for navigation and an open sewer were true, the public health and economic drag of the waterway’s management would be unacceptable. But our embrace of the river has made the presence of poo germs all the more problematic as we spend millions on riverside promenades and the waterway attracts more and more recreational kayakers, canoers, and boaters. Heck, MWRD even put slips in place to promote this use and regularly takes children onto the River in canoes as part of summer programming---even though accidentally gulping a mouthful of water from the river is an invitation for some of history’s scariest waterborne diseases to have their way with you.

Doubters will cry out, “We cannot afford this right now!” But time and time again, we have seen that investment in water spurs economic development and improved quality of life. On the east coast we can see it on the Hudson and the Charles Rivers, but we needn’t look so far away. Aurora, Illinois’ second largest community, is in the midst of a downtown renaissance that comes largely out of a campaign to clean up and embrace the Fox River. Chicago’s embrace of the Lakefront is one of the key decisions that has differentiated this great metropolis from other industrialized cities in the region that turned their backs to the Great Lakes. It is one of the key drivers of our bustling tourism economy and a beloved amenity making this city far more livable. More importantly, our Lakefront is a deep inheritance: it is recognition of the value of public space, access to water and effective action to improve our environment. In short, Chicago has the example of a commitment to public trust as it comes to waterways and the interest of the people. Indeed the lode star of public trust doctrine is the great Supreme Court case that protected Grant Park for the people of Chicago [Illinois Central v. Illinois, 146 US 387 (1892)].

The city has wisely made similar investments in embrace of the Chicago River, our coast within the city. But returns on that investment will remain limited, slowed and disappointing so long as we allow the public health risk from germs such as Cryptosporidium, rotavirus and norovirus to linger in the river.

My organization embraces the potential for a renewed river and recently convened a meeting of federal, state, and local decision-makers to lay forth the objective reality of what can and must be done to safeguard the city’s economy, as well as public health and safety through decontamination of the river. We were joined by NRDC’s Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. whose rousing address helped all present understand what is at stake and what could be gained. One of the things I admire about Bobby is his ability to really get to the essence of an issue. It is exciting to see the response his talks elicit. After the event, I received an email from a federal official who had been present:

...thank you for giving me the opportunity to attend.  I must admit that hearing Bobby talk about not giving up the battle made me reconsider my position on what we can do to improve the times, I find myself resigned to the fact that we are going to have to use the system as our sewer. That need not be the case.

The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne summarized the issues nicely this week, including a quote from Bobby’s presentation in his article:

This river belongs to the people, not the government or the barge industry or the coal industry. It's a plumbing fixture now, but any investment you make in the restoration of this waterway is going to have reverberations for the city as a whole.

The city has been making investments in the River for years. It is time for the District to heed the wishes of the City, State, and Federal regulators and jump on board to make that vision come to pass.