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Chicago River Even Grosser Than We Thought, Ruling May Force Cleanup

By JoshMogerman in News on Aug 21, 2010 7:00PM

Downtown from the Chicago River by RocketLass [via Flickr]
We knew the Chicago River was gross, but…really? According to the Chicago Tribune bacteria counts of water dumped into the Chicago River at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s North Side Treatment Plant are, on average, 521 times higher than those in Elgin on the Fox River!?! If our math is right, some spikes even contain 739 times the bacteria of comparable treated water put back into the suburban river. Perhaps more disturbing, depending on the time of year, the Chicago River is made up of 60-100% water dumped from the District’s treatment plants. Uh, nasty.

As the Trib and an array of critics have been noting at ever-increasing volume, this situation only exists in Chicago. It is illegal to dump partially treated sewage in every other major American city. However, it looks like our region might just be compelled to fall in line soon. MWRD, the independent regional water regulators for Chicagoland, have been fighting hard to continue the practice of dumping “undecontaminated effluent” from their treatment plants, but a recent ruling from the Illinois Pollution Board (where the City, State, US EPA, and a bevy of environmental groups are trying to force a change in practice) designated parts of the river as appropriate for “limited contact recreation,” which is probably no surprise to anyone who has seen the growing presence of kayakers, canoers, and rowing teams on the River. The decision could open the door to forcing MWRD to address the human gut bacteria it currently dumps so as to protect the health of people on or near the river.

Ending the practice of dumping poo-tainted water into the River seems pretty reasonable to us, but MWRD has spent $13 million on taxpayer-funded legal fees and made dubious claims to fight the tougher water standards. They point to sewer overflows in rainstorms as the larger issue and intend to focus on the Deep Tunnel project. Ann Alexander, an outspoken MWRD critic at the Natural Resources Defense Council, took issue with that plan and District delays on her Switchboard blog:

The part that has left me scratching my head is this idea that we shouldn’t bother to clean up one really nasty source of sewage pathogens - the undisinfected wastewater pouring out of the District’s treatment plants 24/7 - because there’s also another really nasty source of sewage pathogens out there too during rainstorms. Call me crazy, but shouldn’t we maybe consider cleaning up both posthaste? Since even if disinfection happens first, it will at least be a little safer to take a canoe out when it hasn’t been raining?

Alexander notes that a recent MWRD presentation showed the completion date of Deep Tunnel has slipped back to 2029. In a piece last week, the Trib’s urban affairs contributor John McCarron noted that 38 years into the Deep Tunnel project, “we are mopping up basements and dumping mass quantities of you-know-what into Lake Michigan.”

And we can all agree that there is already way too much you-know-what floating around Chicago these days.