You Can't Have a Third World River Mucking Up a World-Class City

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This week, I cannot help but think back to one of the most infamous water pollution stories in Chicago’s history---the Dave Mathews Band. You may remember that their tour bus emptied its toilet tanks into the Chicago River while passing over a bridge, unwittingly drenching passengers on a sightseeing boat. What I have come to realize was that the issue was not the dumping of sewage, but the failure to go through the only authorized distributor in the area: the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

For years many in Chicagoland have fought to clean up the Chicago River. And while huge strides have been made, one massive obstacle has prevented real action---sadly, it’s the regulators responsible for the Chicago Waterways. MWRD has made our exceptional river into an embarrassing national exception as one of the only waterways where the dumping of partially treated sewage is accepted. The District’s water treatment plants have for decades made a practice of releasing “undisinfected effluent” into the river. That is a nice way of saying water rife with…ahem…poo germs and a rogue’s gallery of waterborne diseases that we associate with the third world, not our glittering Loop. Despite political pressure from the Feds, the State, the City and a mess of motivated environmental organizations the District’s elected board has steadfastly fought for the right to dump their dirty water---and spent millions of taxpayer dollars to fight off efforts to bring their operations in line with every other major city in the nation (Detroit, Philadelphia, Portland, Cleveland, New York and even Gary, IN disinfect---as do most of the major cities across the globe).

But this week, happily, cracks have appeared in the united front.

If you’ve watched the news, you have likely seen the story broken by the Trib’s Michael Hawthorne about the Environmental Protection Agency signalling that they have enough of the District’s dumping and sent a letter to the State of Illinois instructing them to put higher water cleanliness standards in place “expeditiously.” The District claimed that was a waste of money... Yesterday, the nonprofit organization American Rivers announced that the Chicago River was amongst the waterways ignominiously included in their list of the nation’s most endangered rivers due to the ongoing disregard for ecological and human health from MWRD. The story ran on every TV station in town and included this story on FOX-Chicago News:

Chicago River on Most Endangered Waterways List:

It is an interesting piece for two reasons. First off, I love my colleague Ann Alexander’s quote. “Fact is, you cannot have a third world river running through the heart of a world-class city.” That really sums up the embarrassing disservice that the District inflicts on our region. Secondly, the comments from Commissioner Mike Alvarez make clear that the unified pro-poo front that has dominated the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is disintegrating. Commissioner Deborah Shore released a similar statement this morning noting that it was, finally, time to disinfect. These sentiments were also carried by Mayor Emanuel who noted that we have to keep our yards clean: both our beloved front yard, Lake Michigan, and our neglected back yard, the river. Statements from Senator Durbin and a forceful editorial in today’s Chicago Tribune continued the drumbeat. It is time for MWRD to get in line. And it feels to me like this is going to happen quickly.

But despite my excitement at the possibility of finally getting traction towards a solution to the longstanding problem, there is some danger on the horizon. Cleaning the river is an opportunity to really start fixing our region’s dilapidated water infrastructure. As we noted when announcing a suit against MWRD earlier this month, there is apparently a consent decree being brokered between EPA and the District. And from what we have seen it is incredibly weak. It lacks the bite or resources that were included in a recently inked deal with the water regulators in Cleveland (Ann’s blog post really lays out the issues nicely). Most notably, it lacks a real push on green infrastructure---using natural elements to collect, hold and clean stormwater before it gets into a sewer system and causes basement flooding or river sewage pollution. It is absolutely, positively central to a real fix of our problems in Chicagoland. Why should Cleveland get a thoughtful, modern, flexible solution and not Chicago? Beats me, but with all the pressure for river cleanup I can see a willingness to push a bad agreement through quickly so that folks can wash their hands of this ugliness as quickly as possible without really fixing the problem. That would be a third world solution for a world-class problem…


Chicago River from the Lake Street Bridge image via WikiCommons