Could Chicago River Be In For Some Big Changes Soon?

By JoshMogerman in News on Jul 11, 2010 8:00PM

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Chicago Riverwalk photo by Multisanti.
It seems that something has fundamentally changed in the collective view of the Chicago Waterways System recently. Not long ago, discussions of disinfection and separation from the Mississippi River system were dismissed as unrealistic or far-fetched, “the Chicago River is what it is…” A year ago, the idea of candidates for the U.S. Senate agreeing that they river should be cleaned up seemed inconceivable.

Then came Asian carp. And some very bright light on the region’s shadowy water regulators. Now, there is a healthy debate gurgling over how we should manage the Chicago River in the future with some hard questions being asked and given serious consideration.

Can we stop dumping effluent laden with human bacteria into the river? Could a separation of the connection between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River system that was created when the river was reversed a century ago be used to staunch the flow of invasive species between the ecosystems? Should we re-reverse the flow of the river?

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a series of epic articles about the Chicago River this week, entitled “A River’s Reckoning.” The articles, penned by the paper’s excellent Great Lakes beat writer Dan Egan, paint quite a picture of our local waterway, its place in Chicago’s economic future, and the view from our Great Lakes neighbors. Among the jaw-dropping details is this comparison of the quality of water dumped into the Chicago River system by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and effluent from Milwaukee, which is often cited as one of the main factors for beach closures in this area:

Built primarily to float waste - and therefore given a pass on the normal disinfection requirements - these three canals are thick with bacteria at levels that can be more than 1,000 times higher than what is discharged at Milwaukee's Jones Island sewage treatment plant. It signals the presence of human-borne viruses, bacteria and even worms that can cause everything from hepatitis to respiratory infections to dysentery.

Cities typically have strict limits on how much fecal coliform they can discharge; Jones Island discharged an average of 29 fecal colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water in 2008. Records from the Chicago Reclamation District show the North Side treatment plant averaged 12,279, with daily spikes as high as 170,000. At Chicago's big three reclamation treatment plants, there is no cap.

In portions of the Chicago River system, that effluent makes up 70% of the water flowing in the channel.

In the past Egan’s articles would be waved off as unrealistic jealousy from unhappy neighbors. But the narrative he advances is actually playing out in the race for Barack Obama’s former Senate seat. The issue emerged as one of the few points of real issue differentiation between the candidates in a recent debate, with Alexi Giannoulias proclaiming support for the eventual return of the river to its natural flow into Lake Michigan once MWRD’s dumping was cleaned up as part of a separation of the river and Lake ecosystems. According to Greg Hinz at Crain's, this week Mark Kirk updated his position to agree that effluent flowing into the river system should be decontaminated of human bacteria, but stated that the ecosystems should remain linked while other tools should be found to rebuff Asian carp and other invasive species.

Chicago River disinfection has been left in regulatory backwaters for years, with the fight over bacterial dumping standing as the longest running case before the Illinois Pollution Control Board. We think the fact that this issue is being mentioned without a snicker is an amazing change. But its presence as a campaign issue and the recent bill championed by Dick Durbin in the U.S. Senate forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to fast track their evaluation of the ecosystem separation truly points to significant change may be coming to our green river in the coming years.