Let’s Go Swimming in the Chicago River! Save the Date: 2030

Within 15 years, the waters flowing through the midwestern metropolis could be clean enough for a dip.

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When LaTriece Arthur moved to Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood last summer, the city’s namesake river began coursing through her life. Walks along the Chicago River in Ping Tom Memorial Park became part of her routine. She and friends would rent pontoon boats and motor through the city’s channels and beneath its streets, and when Arthur and her wife married, their wedding guests gathered at the Chicago Riverwalk, a new pedestrian shopping and dining district right in the heart of downtown.

So last fall, when the city’s Metropolitan Planning Council hosted a meeting at Ping Tom Park to see what community members wanted from their river, Arthur attended. She went to the next meeting, too, and then joined the park’s advisory council.

“I don’t know a lot about rivers, but I am an outdoorsy person,” says Arthur, who is busy launching her own event-planning business when she’s not volunteering. “I’m interested in doing anything that improves the environment.”

Arthur may be a new arrival to the Windy City, but she’s now one of many Chicagoans who have been working to reclaim their river from its dirty past. One day she hopes her children will even swim in the Chicago’s waters. And by 2030, that dream may come true.

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With 28 miles of lakeshore, Chicago has always been proud of Lake Michigan, but the city’s more than 150 miles of riverfront deserve some love, too. “Much as Lake Michigan is Chicago’s front yard, the Chicago River is our backyard and should be an asset that people across the city enjoy,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 when announcing a long-term plan for Chicago’s rivers. Carol Ross Barney, a native Chicagoan and architect of the Riverwalk (a project 15 years in the making), agrees. “The future of cities depends on the quality of life you can create downtown and in neighborhoods,” she says.

After years of meeting with communities and organizations like NRDC, the Metropolitan Planning Council released its Great Rivers report in August, laying out remediation and development targets for the Chicago as well as the city’s Des Plaines and Calumet Rivers. These waterways have come a long way in recent decades—beavers ply the tributaries, and more than a dozen fish species live below the surface while kayakers skim above it. But the council won’t rest until Chicagoans can safely swim in these waters and eat fish taken from them, too—quite remarkable when you consider the condition of the waterways over the past century or so.

For more than a hundred years, the city has discharged its sewage into the Chicago River. Prior to the 1920s, that sewage wasn’t even fully treated. Things got so bad that by 1900 engineers had reversed the river’s course to flow south into the Mississippi River instead of into Lake Michigan. But that didn’t solve Chicago’s water quality issues.

Until the early 1970s, stockyards on the South Side would dump animal body parts into the Chicago River’s South Fork. Today the carcasses continue to release methane as they decompose—one section of the waterway is even known as Bubbly Creek. Neighborhood kids named another stretch “Ass Creek” due to its foul smell.

And then there’s the issue of stormwater. Water treatment plants alongside each of the three rivers handle the city’s sewage, but when it rains more than 1.8 inches in an hour, the plants become overwhelmed. Rainwater gushes into sewage pipes, mixes with human waste, and overflows into the waterways. When a really bad storm hits, the city has to open the locks to Lake Michigan, the drinking-water source for 6.6 million people.

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So how does Chicago get the stink and sludge out of its waters? To lessen the amount of storm-fueled pollution surging into the rivers, Chicago began a decades-long infrastructure project in the 1970s that would allow stormwater to overflow into a maze of deep underground tunnels and reservoirs. The second of three reservoirs came on line last summer, and the whole project could be done by 2029. Unfortunately, this long-awaited tunnel and reservoir system may not be the fix planners were hoping for. Thanks to climate change, midwestern storms are dumping more water in shorter time frames.

Phosphorus pollution in Chicago’s sewage is another big problem. Phosphorus encourages algal blooms, which can harm aquatic life by causing oxygen levels in the water to crash. Additionally, modeling studies have shown that pollution from the Chicago area watershed, after it washes down the Mississippi River, is the largest single contributor to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an area roughly the size of Connecticut where decomposing algae have reduced oxygen levels to the point that nothing can live there.

For nearly a decade, NRDC has been working to address Chicago’s nutrient pollution. In 2008, NRDC petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue federal standards for phosphorus in waterways. After the EPA denied the petition, NRDC sued and won in court. (The EPA appealed the case, which is now pending in district court.)

In the absence of federal or state quantitative phosphorus limits, Illinois has largely been using “narrative” standards vaguely stating that its waters must be free from unnatural levels of algae growth. According to NRDC attorney Ann Alexander, that just doesn’t cut it. The difference between the two standards is like comparing “a sign saying the speed limit is X miles an hour and a sign saying don’t drive too fast.”

In 2013, Illinois did finally add a specific phosphorus permit limit for water coming out of Chicago’s sewage treatment plants. However, that limit was 1 milligram of phosphorus per liter—more than 10 times the limit most scientists say is needed to avoid algae blooms. The state even gave the sewage plants as long as 10 years to comply.

NRDC also argued successfully that treated sewage should be disinfected before its release into the river, as is done in every other major American city, in order to move toward compliance with the Clean Water Act. The state and the EPA agreed. Last summer two sewage treatment facilities started the disinfection process, one using chlorine and the other using ultraviolet light, both of which kill harmful bacteria such as E. coli and giardia.

More good news on this front: Chicago hopes to protect its citizens with real-time water monitoring by 2020. Then officials will be able to broadcast exactly where unsafe concentrations of E. coli are popping up in the rivers via apps and social media and on digital displays at boathouses. And by 2030, the plan is to build more green infrastructure, like permeable pavement and park spaces, which help absorb rainwater and prevent flooding and phosphorus runoff.

To prevent water from stagnating, the city will also install more aeration stations similar to the one that helped make Ass Creek eventually smell like, well, just a creek. As for Bubbly Creek, the city says it will likely either remove its rotting sediment or cap it with sand and rocks.

Now, once all that is done, Chicago may pull off another amazing engineering feat: putting the Chicago River back on its original course. Reversing the river’s flow (again) could alleviate flooding, says Meleah Geertsma, a senior attorney at NRDC, as well as cut off the invasive species superhighway between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River—a wildlife exchange that causes millions of dollars in damage each year.

Sure, 2030 seems far off, but as the Chicago River slowly churns back to its natural state, it will also gradually return to its people. The final section of the Riverwalk will open in November, and you can bet your sweet home that LaTriece Arthur will be there watching kids splash in fountains and folks fish from piers.

“Great cities are usually founded on rivers or bodies of water,” says architect Barney. “This is our heritage.” A heritage that will continue to get a good scrubbing.

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