Chicago’s namesake river is an important ecological, historical and cultural icon. It is nationally significant as a key connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, but to Chicagoans it has a rich local history that encompasses everything from memories of the meat-packing industry’s prolific waste to dying the river green on St. Patrick’s Day. Each year the river is used by tens of thousands of individuals who swim, kayak and fish there – not to mention the significant use by the shipping and tourism industries.
But what most people don’t know is that over 70% of the water in the Chicago River is “wastewater effluent” – water that is discharged from the wastewater treatment plant after it has been treated. That means watchdogging our wastewater treatment facilities and sewer systems is essential to protecting the environment and public health in Chicago. “Stormwater” protections are also important to Chicago-area waterways, which are inundated with rainwater after it races across blacktop and cement, picking up oil, metals and other pollutants.
For years, Chicagoans tolerated their namesake river being unsafe and unhealthy for recreation and enjoyment. Chicago was one of the few major cities in the United States that did not disinfect its wastewater before dumping it into local waterways, making them unsuitable for recreational activities like swimming or kayaking. While the water was receiving significant treatment, that final disinfection step is crucial to eliminating microscopic bacteria that can harm the thousands of people who recreate on the river each year.
What is ELPC Doing?
ELPC’s and our colleagues’ persistent and effective advocacy over six years succeeded in 2011, when our legal victory compelled the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to install modern pollution control equipment to disinfect wastewater. Years from now, Chicagoans enjoying the Chicago River in their communities will look back, shake their heads and ask why it took so long to clean up our river.
ELPC and our colleagues are very proud of our 2011 victory securing disinfection standards for the Chicago River, but our work continues on several fronts:
First, it is essential that ELPC’s clean water advocates continue to monitor MWRD’s implementation of the disinfection standard adopted in 2011. It will take the agency multiple years to raise funds, install equipment and monitor its effectiveness. As with all of ELPC’s long-term advocacy efforts, we stick around to ensure good decisions are implemented well.
Second, the same legal classification that allowed non-disinfected water to reach the Chicago River also allows coal-fired power plants to discharge very hot water that can disrupt aquatic ecosystems and “fry the fish.” ELPC’s clean water advocates are working hard to change the aquatic use standards to make the Chicago River more welcoming to fish, which help keep the river clean and healthy.
Finally, ELPC is advocating for MWRD to better manage “combined sewer overflows,” which occur during heavy rains or floods and result in untreated sewage reaching the Chicago River. A “combined sewer” is simply one system of pipes that carries both sewage and stormwater to the wastewater treatment facility. During heavy rains, the increased volume of wastewater can overwhelm the treatment plant’s finite capacity, leading to an “overflow” – untreated wastewater, including sewage, going directly into the Chicago River. ELPC is working on two fronts to solve the CSO problem – a legal proceeding to compel the MWRD to separate the sewer system into two sets of pipes for sewage and stormwater sooner rather than later, and advocating for better stormwater management so it never reaches the sewer system in the first place.