Chicago River

Chicago’s namesake river is an important cultural icon. It is nationally significant as a connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River watersheds, but to Chicagoans it has a rich local history that ranges from memories of the meat-packing industry’s prolific waste, to dyeing the river green on St. Patrick’s Day. Each year the river is used by tens of thousands of people who row, ice skate, kayak, and fish there – not to mention significant use by the shipping and tourism industries.

Over the past few generations, river quality has improved significantly, but many challenges remain. Residents struggle with the pollutants left behind by generations of industry. As the climate warms, increasingly heavy rainstorms wash oils, metals, and other pollutants off urban cement surfaces. The river is also the main repository for the city’s “wastewater effluent” – water that is discharged from the wastewater treatment plant after it has been treated. As the river becomes a more popular destination and urban refuge, communities are paying attention to these hazards and working towards improvement.

What is ELPC Doing?

  • Sanitized Effluent – Chicago’s wastewater treatment facilities have a big job: processing the industrial, road, and human waste of the city before releasing the remaining “effluent” water into the river system. After many stages of cleaning and filtering, many cities added the assurance of sanitizing their effluent, but Chicago was missing that last step. ELPC worked with our colleagues over several years, and in 2011 succeeded in legal victory compelling the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) to install modern pollution control equipment. Today, ultraviolet light zaps any remaining toxins from effluent out of the north side’s O’Brien treatment plant, and chlorine is used in the city’s other two plants. In hindsight, it’s amazing it took so long to clean up our river.
  • Combined sewer overflows – Like many old cities, Chicago has a “combined sewer system,” one set of pipes that carries both sewage and stormwater to the wastewater treatment facility. In heavy rainstorms, the increased volume can overwhelm the sewage system’s finite capacity, causing it to overflow into the river. Climate change has already led to more frequent heavy rainstorms in our region, exacerbating the problem. ELPC works with local colleagues to find climate solutions in mitigation and adaptation. For example, green infrastructure like permeable pavement and rain gardens could help absorb the excess rainwater, and everyday folks can reduce their water usage during rainy days to reduce the stress on our water infrastructure.
  • Chicago Fishes – Cleaning up the river isn’t just good for people, it’s also good for aquatic life which has rebounded in recent years. Dozens of fish species have returned to the city, but it can be hard to document this biodiversity. So, ELPC has teamed up with local colleagues to host a public fishing program on the river walk. Not only does this free catch-and-release program help biologists track the success of the river ecosystem, it also helps to rebuild our human connection with the natural world.


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