Reversing Course: Fixing the Chicago River

By Matt Baker

Image courtesy of Jeremy Atherton.

Long before Michael Phelps, the United States rallied around another legendary Olympic swimmer. Johnny Weissmuller—who would later gain further fame as the lead in a dozen Tarzan films—won five gold medals during the 1924 and 1928 Olympics. But in the interim between those two competitions, he did something that today seems much more incredible: he swam in the Chicago River.

For over twenty years in the early 20th Century, this was a regular occurrence. The Chicago River Marathon was an annual, 3 kilometer race that started at the mouth of the Chicago River and finished beneath the Jackson Boulevard bridge on the South Branch. Weissmuller swam it twice, in 1926 and 1927, with a time of just under one hour.

Today, our understanding of just how polluted the river is means that no one would dream of swimming in it. Kayaks, canoes and other recreational vehicles have seen a resurgence in recent years, but not without caution. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urges boaters to avoid swallowing river water, wash their hands before eating, keep open wounds dry and bring along hand sanitizer. Children and those with weakened immune systems are advised to keep their distance. And of course, no swimming.

How things got so bad

Chicago grew from a frontier town in the beginning of the 19th Century to a bustling metropolis of 1.7 million people by its close. Impelling this growth were the factories, slaughterhouses and rail yards that made early Chicago famous. A depository for so much offal and industrial waste was readily available in the Chicago River.

The river, of course, emptied into Lake Michigan, the main potable water source for the region. Fear of cholera and typhoid outbreaks from the mingling of sewage and drinking water is the reason that intake cribs are set so far out in the lake.

And then engineers famously (or infamously, should you be downstream) reversed the river’s flow. Sewage and industrial waste still found their way into the river, but it was someone else’s problem now. With the effluent headed elsewhere, Chicago never felt bothered to take the extra step of disinfection, a distinction shared by no other metropolis in the country. American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, added the Chicago River to its annual 10 Most Endangered Rivers list last year, citing the dumping of sewage that hadn’t been fully disinfected.

How the situation has improved

A series of changes over the years have helped to improve the water quality of the Chicago River, the Cal-Sag Channel, the Calumet Rivers and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, collectively known as the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS).

The fish hotel at its current location near Dearborn and Wacker. Image courtesy of WRD Environmental, Inc.

The most prominent was the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act. This federal legislation set toxicity standards for all the nation’s navigable water and regulated the discharge of pollutants. At the time of the Act’s passage, there were 10 documented fish species in the Chicago River; only four decades later, there are now over 70 species.

Later in the 1970s, construction began on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s (MWRD) Deep Tunnel project. One of the most ambitious ongoing civil engineering enterprises in the country, Deep Tunnel is a series of massive tunnels that will divert excess stormwater to a series of reservoirs. The project is not slated for completion until 2029, but its effects have already been felt as parts of the system have come online to alleviate flooding and dumping of sewage into the CAWS.

Another noticeable enhancement to the Chicago River is the fish hotel, an endeavor of Friends of the Chicago River (FotCR) in cooperation with WRD Environmental. Since 2005, the 10′ x 42′ floating island has been moored along the embankment of the Chicago River’s main stem. Designed to be a functioning ecosystem, a perimeter of modular docking components restrains a mixture of recycled coconut cores, driftwood and native plants.

The roots of the native plants offer shade and sustenance and farther below the surface, fish cribs provide a safe haven for aquatic life from larger predators and wave action on the busy river. From the locks on Lake Michigan to Wolf Point, this stretch of the river has no natural habitat. The fish hotel is an attempt to remedy that.

The Friends of the Chicago River’s fish hotel is buoyed by off-the-shelf modular docks and recycled coconut cores; native plants provide food and shade while the underwater cribs offer shelter and a growing medium for algae and other aquatic vegetation. Image courtesy of WRD Environmental, Inc.

In the winter, the fish hotel is towed downriver near the recently shuttered Fisk power plant, where the river doesn’t freeze over. Every spring it returns to the main stem. “Within half an hour of putting it in, you see fish show up,” said Ernesto Huaracha, Director of Build Management at WRD Environmental.

Last May, the Obama Administration, followed closely by the Illinois Pollution Control Board, mandated the cleanup of the CAWS. Invoking the federal powers granted by the Clean Water Act, the EPA demanded that portions of the waterways be remediated to allow “recreation in and on the water.”

“A decade of investments in walkways, boat ramps and parks have provided people with access to the water,” said EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman. “And now we need to make sure the water is safe.”

Federal officials have been suggesting the river improvements for more than a year but took more aggressive action because they believed regulators hadn’t gone far enough. The MWRD had long maintained that implementing disinfectant practices would simply be too costly.

Estimates of up to $240 million for the capital construction and annual maintenance costs of $26 million to comply with the EPA’s mandate suggest that the MWRD commissioners opposed to the stricter standards had some footing. However, sewer bills in Chicago and the Cook County suburbs are among the nation’s lowest. According to EPA calculations, disinfecting the water discharged into the CAWS should add only about $40 per household, based on median home values in the region.

In June of 2011, one month after the EPA ordered the cleanup, the MWRD commissioners mimicked the river itself and reversed course. “It’s been an exciting year and three months,” said Margaret Frisbie, the Executive Director of FotCR. Governor Pat Quinn recently allocated $10 million towards putting ultraviolet treatment in place at the North Side water reclamation plant and chlorination technology in the Calumet plant.

By 2015, disinfection will be in place at the two water reclamation plants. WMRD actually oversees another, larger plant in Stickney that is not slated to put disinfection upgrades into place. The decision was made to give priority to the other two plants first because the vast majority of recreational boaters such as kayakers and paddlers are downstream of them. Frisbie isn’t bothered by the phased approach. “We’ve made tremendous progress,” she said. “We’re absolutely thrilled that the MWRD is moving forward at such a rapid pace.”

The future of the Chicago River

There are currently no plans to expand the fish hotel concept to other parts of the river; however, Frisbie sees it as more of an educational tool than a viable habitat restoration plan. “We wanted to teach people that, even in downtown Chicago where you would perceive there are no fish in the river, they can in fact live there and thrive.” The City of Chicago’s master plan for the main stem riverwalk does include in-stream habitats, an improvement that was directly informed by work done on the fish hotel.

“We [FotCR] do policy work behind the scenes to change the water quality rules,” said Frisbie, “but we also do work to demonstrate change.” FotCR is currently working with the Cook County Forest Preserve District—which manages over 50 miles of riverbanks along the CAWS—to better maintain riparian zones.

Kayakers, such as the ones here where the Brown Line crosses the river near Lawrence, are an obvious sign of some of the changes to the Chicago River over the last ten years. Image courtesy of Jeremy Atherton.

This fall, a new program will send volunteers out into the forest preserves in search of gullies, which are clear indicators of stormwater runoff into the waterways. Smaller gullies can be repaired with light plantings while larger ones will indicate a major source of runoff that may require more drastic measures.

The infestation of Asian Carp has brought new challenges to the Chicago River. The invasive species, which has already overrun wildlife in other waterways where it has been found, is threatening to enter the Great Lakes where its effect would be devastating.

With the Asian Carp taking over the Mississippi River basin, an audacious plan has been put forward: sever the connection between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes by restoring the Chicago River to its natural flow. That’s right, re-reverse the river.

This proposal has been put forward separately by the National Resources Defence Council, the Great Lakes Commission, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative and by Chicago architect Jeanne Gang and her book, Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways. It’s unclear what, if anything, will happen along these lines in the years to come. Commercial shipping companies have voiced concerns of higher costs that separating the CAWS from the Mississippi would levy on them.

The Chicago River has a storied history. It has been the site of disasters, such as the capsizing of the Eastland and the flood of 1992. The fame of its reversal is possibly only outshined by the fame of the green dye job it receives every March. Johnny Weissmuller isn’t around anymore to take on competitors, but there remains hope that one day, Chicagoans can again swim in their river.

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