New Chicago River Concepts Rise As Polluted Water Wanes

Active Trans Chicago River Bike Path concept photo

It has been a dizzying few weeks along the Chicago River. This weekend the final stretch of the downtown Riverwalk, completing a 1.3 mile stretch of public spaces along the waterway, opened with much fanfare.

Even more fascinating is a plan from Chicago’s Active Trans that envisions floating bike paths in the River. That follows on the MPC’s “Great Rivers” project which tries to envision how the region should rightly embrace its waterways as amenities.

How did a river derided as one of the nation’s dirtiest for decades suddenly become so popular? It’s amazing what happens when you start disinfecting sewage and curtail 24/7 dumping of waste water laden with poo germs into a river. Suddenly, when regional water regulators treat a river like a resource, people are a lot more likely to embrace it as a resource they can invest in and use. 

The Chicago Waterways are indeed getting cleaner and better. And that happened in part because a coalition of environmentalists took the regional water regulator to force the issue. Disinfection of the effluent from two of MWRD’s three water treatment plants, which makes up 70% of the river’s flow in places, is making a big difference in water quality. But moreover, it sends a signal that we should not treat the waterways as a place to dump our pollution. (As would disinfecting the effluent from the giant outlier treatment plant in Stickney.)

But there is a long way to go in dealing with dirty water. Most importantly, as Riverwalk architect Ross Barney notes, the region’s combined sewers divert sewage into the Chicago River mix often. Except where the long-delayed deep tunnel project has been completed, any time it rains more than .65 of an inch, the system is overwhelmed and contaminated water flows into the waterways via 250 outflows spread out throughout the area.

One of the most important ways to limit that impact is to keep rainwater out of the sewer system. As we’ve written about time and time again, green infrastructure—using natural surfaces to collect, filter and hold rain where it falls—is an essential and inexpensive way to do this. But the MWRD has been slow to embrace these tools, so we are going to court once again to enforce the Clean Water Act and improve the water quality in the river. Because, despite the fantastic plans proposed by the Chicago civic community, a river renaissance cannot continue if the river is polluted and regularly filled with bacteria infected sewage. A world-class city can’t have a filthy river run through its residential, commercial and industrial districts and parklands. Chicago should not have a polluted stream at its heart.

We are very proud of the results of the last time we acted to enforce the laws on behalf of the Chicago River—and intend to continue our advocacy to bring additional positive outcomes for Chicagoland.

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