Myth: Mulching Your Garden Is Good for the Environment

Mulch Ado About Weed Control

Anyone who listens to the news is going to be uncomfortable using chemical weed killer to control weeds in a home garden. Although many are touted as safe, herbicides do seem to have a way of getting linked to unexpected health hazards.

The obvious, safer solution is to use mulch instead. Mulches not only control weeds, they help the soil retain moisture. Some mulches actually feed the soil as they decompose.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, it turns out that there’s a bit more to it. Some mulching options produce unwanted side effects, and it’s useful to know what they are.

Be “Eco-smart” When it Comes to Mulch

We all try to pick and choose which plants will be allowed to reside in our gardens, but weeds have ideas of their own.

Some weeds succeed because they’re invasive species with no local natural enemies. Some can poison the soil to prevent competition. Others are just splendidly adapted for the local environment. They’re tough customers, and they see that open space in your garden as a standing invitation to move on in.

Few gardeners enjoy weeding. And many of us are quite dubious about the safety of commercial herbicides, no matter what it may say on the label.

So as an alternative we use mulch, as recommended by Horticulturist Joseph Krol, of the Morton Arboretum. And while mulch is a useful weapon against weeds, not all mulches are the same.

The Cypress Crisis

Cypress mulch has been a perennial favorite. But the truth is that cypress mulch isn’t what it’s made out to be. Its popularity is based upon the idea that cypress mulch contains natural chemicals that fend off insects and resist rot. And it did—back in the days when the mulch was made from full-grown, fully developed, century-old trees.

But that’s no longer the case. The demand for cypress timber and mulch has led to an unsustainable over-harvesting of cypress trees, so much so that most cypress mulch now comes from immature trees that have not yet developed the properties that made its mulch so popular in the first place.

And it gets worse. Cypress groves thrive where lowlands meet the ocean, and they protect inland areas from hurricanes by cutting storm surge by as much as 90 percent. They’re also the pillars of their local ecosystems, protecting the region from invasive species and helping to maintain proper conditions for the local flora and fauna. A study by the Louisiana Coastal Wetland Science Working Group (SWG) estimates that the lumber in Louisiana’s cypress groves would have a one-time value of $3.3 billion if the groves were harvested.

That sounds like a lot of money until you read the rest of the report. If left in place as hurricane barriers and guardians of the local environment, the same groves are worth $6.7 billion per year, year in and year out.

Few groves will ever grow back once harvested. Mature cypress trees can live to be more than 1,000 years old, but their seedlings need the freshwater floods that used to replenish the land with fresh layers of silt on a regular basis.

Thanks to more than a century of dam-building, shipping canals and flood control, very little new silt makes it into the cypress groves anymore. Instead of being continually rebuilt, the land is slowly subsiding, and brackish water from the Gulf of Mexico keeps creeping farther inland. The cypress seedlings can’t survive.

It’s not impossible that our water management practices will change at some time in the future, and that conditions in the cypress groves will change with them. But until that happens, the cypress groves will not regenerate.

According to the Louisiana Forestry Association, loggers are erasing up to 20,000 acres of cypress every year. At that pace Louisiana’s best defense against hurricanes will be gone in less than two decades. Without the cypress groves to hold them back, even minor hurricanes could strike like Katrina. Buying cypress mulch just brings the disaster closer.

Mulch Options Evaluated

So what are your other options? We’ll cover the good, the okay, and the bad…and we may as well get the bad out of the way first—just like you’re going to do once you’re done reading, right? Right.

Mulches to Avoid

  • Rubber mulches aren’t a great choice. They’re made from chipped automobile tires, which, according to Linda Chalker-Scott, PhD, of Washington State University, contain zinc and other contaminants that leech into the soil and can kill neighboring plants. In addition, rubber mulch is not as effective at controlling weeds as wood chips. It’s also worth pointing that a hot summer day will make your rubber mulch stink to high heaven.
  • Cocoa Bean Shells look and smell nicer, but they contain theobromine, the same chemical that makes chocolate toxic to dogs. How dangerous it is depends upon the dog’s habits, and how many cocoa shells get eaten. Even the most voracious pups probably won’t eat enough to kill themselves outright. But they may very well experience diarrhea, vomiting, tremors, and an elevated heart rate. Not surprisingly, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center recommends avoiding the use of cocoa bean shell mulch in landscaping around dogs. If you’re a dog owner you may find yourself raking all that mulch back up again.

Beneficial But Problematic Organic Mulches

  • Last year’s leaves, shredded so that they won’t matt up, make excellent mulch. But that doesn’t help you if you haven’t got a lot of leaves.
  • Sawdust works, as long as it’s made from clean, untreated lumber. But who generates sawdust in sufficient quantity? You don’t want take chances with sawdust you didn’t create yourself, because if it was made from things like particle board or plywood it will leech all kinds of nasty chemicals.
  • Pine needles make fine mulch, but you need a stand of pine trees.
  • Pure, completely decomposed compost works well, because it makes the soil too rich for weed seedlings. But if the compost is applied before its ready, the weeds will move right in. Done correctly, using compost as mulch is a rich option for both controlling weeds and applying nutrients to the soil. For more on compost, see this primer from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Solution: Natural Wood Mulch

Fortunately there are other excellent options. High quality wood mulch, like compost, keeps weeds down and releases nutrients as it decomposes. You’ll want to be careful about the source, of course. Low quality wood mulches are often made from recycled wood products like old pallets and demolished buildings, and they may very well contain unwelcome ingredients like arsenic, creosote or lead-based paint. In which case, you’re right back to the same problem posed by chemical herbicides. 

So read the label. Good mulch is made from natural wood products rather than recycled trash wood, and the label will boast about it. And you’ll also see a statement saying that the mulch has been certified by the Mulch and Soil Council. Often made from pine, certified mulches are the byproducts of lumber milling and processing operations, and they’re not being allowed to go to waste.

The EPA says there’s nothing to fear from the red or black colorants used in good wood mulches. The red colorant is an ingredient in everything from cosmetics to paint, and in those applications we call it “iron oxide.” When it starts to appear on our cars we usually just call it “rust.” There’s normally going to be plenty of iron in your soil anyway, and adding a bit more won’t hurt anything.

The black colorant is ordinary carbon, and wood mulch is already roughly 50 percent carbon. Again, there’s no reason to panic. If you’re using Mulch and Soil Council certified mulch, a byproduct of the lumber industry, the area harvested to make the mulch is normally going to be allowed to grow back as a forest again. So as your wood mulch decomposes and releases carbon, new vegetation will be sequestering carbon back at the source.

When using wood mulch, don’t let the top layer remain chronically wet. And add a new layer every year. When kept wet, old rotting wood mulches can eventually breed “shotgun” or “artillery” fungus that may permanently stain homes and cars up to 30 feet away. The fungus shoots out spores that look like little tar balls, and they’re just about impossible to remove.

But used wisely, non-cypress wood mulches do have their place in a gardener’s toolbox. You’re not contributing to the demise of the cypress groves or trying to drown your neighbors down in Louisiana. You’re fertilizing your plants a bit and you’re helping them conserve water. You’re making your landscape more attractive, you’re not contaminating the soil—and it sure beats the beats the heck out of weeding.

The Morton Arboretum provides a guide to full range of organic mulches, including those shown here, plus how to apply them, and more.

What You Can Do

  • Don’t buy cypress mulch and don’t be shy about explaining the cypress mulch issue to your fellow gardeners.
  • Be aware that some mulch will leak poisons into your soil, including rubber, cocoa shells and recycled wood mulch.
  • Read the label. Make sure that your mulch was made from natural forest products and is certified by the Mulch and Soil Council.
  • You can’t beat chopped up leaves, if you’ve got a large supply. They’re a natural mulch and a natural fertilizer at the same time. And they’re free.
  • Make your own compost. Pure, fully-decomposed compost will keep weeds down for a season, while steadily enriching the soil below.
  • Don’t pile any mulch up against a building. Termites will use it as a highway to termite heaven.
  • Don’t pile any mulch against the stems or trunks of your trees and plants. It makes it easier for insects and diseases to attack the plant.

Written by Paul Frisbie


Myth: Pesticides Only Kill Bad Bugs

Can We Use Pesticides Without Harming Beneficial Bugs?

~ Do not draw your sword to kill a fly – Korean Proverb

Whether you’re wrangling with Japanese beetles munching on your flowers, slugs eating holes in your vegetables, or caterpillars feasting on your trees, it’s tempting to use pesticides to solve the problem. And it’s easy to forget that there’s more going on in your backyard ecosystem than meets the eye.

We often resort to pesticides to deal with garden pests. But pesticides don’t just control unwanted beetles and slugs. They often kill more than just the target nuisance, including beneficial natural predators like lady bugs. If a pesticide gets into your soil, it may also harm soil organisms that help to keep your plants healthy. There are many ways to control pests before resorting to pesticides.

FYI: Natural Solutions Really Can Work!

Pesticides define a broad category of products that are designed to prevent, kill, or reduce pests such as insects and mice. Pesticides also include products that control weeds, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. By their nature, pesticides present risk to animals, humans, and the environment because they are designed to harm living organisms. At the same time, pesticides are also useful to society because they help control disease-causing organisms, pests, invasive weeds, and insects.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) acknowledges the potential benefits of pesticides, but also monitors their potential impacts on the environment, including fisheries, birds, and threatened and endangered species. According to a recent U.S. Geological Survey study, pesticides were found over 90% of the time in streams, in more than 80% of fish sampled, and in 33% of major aquifers. USFWS also cites pesticide use as the likely cause of deformities and declines in amphibian populations as well as declines in species of pollinators and other beneficial insects.

The Problem

Bugs and other tiny creatures are all around us. But it is important to differentiate helpful insects from harmful ones. Many insects that we see are actually beneficial, such as butterflies, bees, ladybugs, lacewings, and fireflies. Butterflies and bees perform the important function of pollinating our crops and flowers, helping plants to reproduce. Ladybugs (technically Coccinellidae or Lady Beetles) and brown lacewings eat aphids, scale insects, mites, and insect eggs. Firefly larvae are predators of various insects, slugs, and snails.

Soils also are home to many beneficial organisms including bacteria, fungi, earthworms, ants, and beetles. Above ground, it is easy to see the plants, birds and bugs. But we don’t often think about the microorganisms that help keep our soils healthy. They’re vital to our backyard ecosystems just the same. Our plants draw their nitrogen from the soil, for example, and they count on beneficial soil bacteria and fungi to breakdown dead organic material (leaves, for instance) releasing ammonium and nitrate that a plant can easily absorb.

Beneficial bacteria and fungi also help control diseases that might otherwise run amok. They decompose dead animal and plant material into nutrient-rich, organic matter that helps your garden thrive. They even help the soil retain water. (For the record, bacteria and fungi are not doing this from the good of their little microbial hearts; breaking down dead material in the soil liberates the energy and nutrients they need to satisfy their own needs; their usefulness for the plants in your garden are an advantageous by-product) (Source: USDA Soil Biology Primer).

Unfortunately, pesticides may kill beneficial insects and other organisms right along with the bad.

In the soil, chemical pesticides may lead to unfavorable conditions. If pesticides are overused and seep into on the soil, they can harm insects and other living organisms that contribute to the health of your lawn. “Healthy soil is part of a functioning ecosystem and within the soil itself there is an ecosystem.” says Kim Stone of the Safer Pest Control Project, a non-profit Illinois agency. “The repeated use of pesticides may throw the soil ecosystem out of balance, by killing beneficial organisms that help keep the soil rich.”

Above the soil, pesticides create unwanted problems too. The use of broad spectrum pesticides sprayed all around the yard, rather than spot treatments on affected plants, can harm beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings. If pesticides drift onto plants that are attractive to bees and butterflies, these insects could be unintentionally killed.

The Solution

It’s natural to have a few bugs nibbling on your plants. If you keep your soil and your backyard ecosystem healthy, Mother Nature will normally keep things from getting out of hand. The discovery of one caterpillar in a row of thriving tomato plants is probably not a portent of doom. One possible solution is to expect and tolerate a certain amount of pest activity.

When control of pests is necessary, there are many options to choose from before resorting to pesticide. The best way to control pests is to head the problem off before it gets started. Plant a diversity of plants that bloom all summer. Many predators supplement their diets with pollen and nectar, so the same blossoms that make your garden beautiful will tend to attract the insect predators that you need to defend it (For more information see University of Illinois Extension horticulture article: “How to Attract Beneficial Insects to the Garden”). Plant some marigolds alongside those tomatoes and you’ll get more than just the splash of color. You’ll get protection, too.

Before you act, identify the insects you suspect are pests and understand how they can be controlled. The Illinois Natural History Survey website has helpful online ID cards with brief descriptions of beneficial and detrimental landscape insects and other organisms (“The Good Guys” and “The Bad Guys“), what they eat, and how to manage or encourage them.

You may find that you can control your particular pest with relatively non-toxic measures. Spraying pests off plants with a stream of water from a garden hose may be sufficient. For easily visible pests, like Japanese beetles, shake them into a cup of soapy water- which kills them without damaging the surrounding environment. Catch winged aphids, whiteflies, and leafhoppers with yellow sticky boards, which you can make yourself with yellow poster board and sticky glue. Even homemade garlic spray (15 crushed garlic cloves blended in one pint of water and strained) is effective against most insect pests.

If homemade solutions are not enough, you may need to use an organic pesticide. These include horticultural oils, insecticidal soaps and botanical insecticides. However, use organic pesticides in a targeted way in order to prevent unwanted consequences on other insects, birds, and soil microorganisms that are part of a healthy garden ecosystem. Fortunately, organic pesticide impacts are short-term because they tend to breakdown quickly and have no lasting impact on the environment. Other non-chemical pesticides are also an alternative. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Biologically-based pesticides, such as pheromones and microbial pesticides, are becoming increasingly popular and often are safer than traditional chemical pesticides”.

When no other solution is available, US Fish and Wildlife recommends careful use of chemical pesticides, to minimize impact on the environment: “It is important to use these products only when necessary (rather than on a regular schedule), use the minimum amount required to be effective, and to target application so that only the intended pest is affected.”

Many lawn fertilizers include pesticide, so if you do want to avoid adding pesticide to your soil you are better off also avoiding certain fertilizers — particularly those labeled as weed and feed. See EcoMyth’s articles from April 2010 on Fertilizer and May 2010 on Mulch for more information on alternatives to fertilizer.

Green Things You Can Do

  • Anticipate and accept some pest activity.
  • Attract natural predators and pollinators with a diverse and colorful garden.
  • When possible, use non-chemical practices to keep the lawn healthy and the ecosystem in balance.
    • Remove pests by hand or shake into a cup of soapy water
    • Spray pests off plants with the garden hose
    • Water adequately to keep plants healthy
    • Keep insects off plants and vegetables by using polyester row covers
    • Remove insect-damaged plants
    • Pull weeds and remove fallen leaves where insects can hide
  • Shop for natural lawn care products: A listing of Natural Lawn Care Product Suppliers in the Chicago Wilderness region is available from Safer Pest Control, a non-profit Illinois agency.
  • If pesticides are necessary, choose organic pesticides and those that are least toxic to non-pest species. Target pesticide applications to avoid water and non-target species. Avoid spraying in windy conditions.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.


Myth: The Chicago River Is Toilet Water

To tackle some lingering myths about the Chicago River, let’s start with a pop quiz. Which of the following describes the river?

  1. A nature haven
  2. A paddler’s paradise
  3. Toilet water
  4. Really green every March 17
  5. All of the above

The answer is 5.

Wait a minute. Sure, everyone knows that dyeing the Chicago River green on St. Patty’s Day is a time-honored tradition. But how can the river be Nature Haven, Paddler’s Paradise and Toilet Water all at once?
Ever since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the river has become a lot cleaner than it used to be. So clean, that all kinds of fish have returned to its once dead waters. Lots of people have returned to the river, too, with fishing poles, canoes and kayaks.

So, it’s a myth that the Chicago River is hopelessly polluted?

When it comes to the river, there are few simple answers. Yes, it’s a myth that the river is hopelessly polluted – the days of dumping raw sewage into the river are long gone. But, there’s still a lot of bad stuff that makes it into the river without being treated. And ironically, that bad stuff comes directly out of our water treatment plants.

“Disinfection” of the water discharged from our water treatment plants is the next step in making the Chicago River even cleaner. Even healthier. And unless certain agencies follow through on that next step, the river and all of its related waterways will continue to run with a lot of untreated toilet water.

Which agencies? What’s disinfection? The river is really filled with toilet water?

To get to the heart of these questions, let’s continue with our pop quiz. Which way does the Chicago River flow?

  1. Into Lake Michigan
  2. Away from Lake Michigan

This one is a gimme. If anyone knows anything about the Chicago River—beyond its St. Patty’s Day dye job—it’s that it flows backward. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, what was then the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the flow away from the lake toward the Des Plaines River, which flows into the Illinois River and eventually the Mississippi River. To see a map of the Chicago Area Waterways, click here.

Why was the river reversed?

  1. To improve navigation
  2. To protect public health
  3. To show off

Adding locks to (and straightening and channelizing) the river helped improve navigation for the many ships and barges that ply its waters. And reversing the river’s flow certainly put Chicago on the engineering marvel map. But the main answer is B. The river was reversed primarily because of pollution. Chicago’s exploding population had dumped so much garbage, industrial waste, stockyard offal, and raw sewage directly into the river that when it naturally flowed into the lake it caused frequent and deadly outbreaks of typhoid and other related water-born diseases.

So, did reversing the flow of the Chicago River do the trick?

Yes and no. It kept pollution from fouling the drinking water of Lake Michigan. That was huge. A city without clean, reliable drinking water is no city at all. But reversing the river’s flow didn’t eliminate the pollution. In spite of drawing in fresh lake water to dilute the pollution and help push it downstream, the river remained an open sewer for all the, er, crap that got dumped into it. The stink that ran through the heart of the city was unbearable.

To minimize the odors and further protect the city’s drinking water, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago—formerly the Sanitary District of Chicago—began building a series of sewage treatment plants.

How many sewage treatment plants does the MWRD operate today?

  1. One
  2. Three
  3. Five
  4. Seven

The MWRD currently operates seven sewage treatment plants. (You can tour them if you’re REALLY interested.) Every time it rains, every time you and the region’s 5.3 million other residents flush the toilet or wash the dishes, the combined stormwater and wastewater first passes through one of the seven treatment plants. Together, they process 1.4 billion gallons of water a day. That’s enough water to fill up the Willis Tower—the tallest skyscraper in Chicago—more than 26 times.

Whew. Pollution problem solved, right?

Well, let’s start with the good news. Before the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Chicago River boasted a mere 10 species of fish. Today, fish surveys reveal there are nearly 70, including crappie, bluegill, and three different kinds of bass—to name just a few.

And not just fish have returned to the river. Ducks, cormorants, and geese are increasingly common sights. River otters have returned for the first time in modern memory. And there are now so many beaver that some trees need to be protected from their sharp incisors with wire mesh.

And people?

As the water quality of our waterways has improved over time, lots of people have rediscovered their joys. At last count, there were four outfitters providing canoes and kayaks for urban adventurists. Anglers fish from man-made bridges and natural banksides. Tour boats provide one of the best ways to take in Chicago’s famed architecture, along with surprising stretches of parks, forest preserves and other thriving natural areas.

But I’ve heard that people can get sick if they come in contact with the water.

Now we’ve come to the bad news. Several experts have testified before the Illinois Pollution Control Board that contact with the river can cause a range of potentially severe illnesses. Even a study funded by the MWRD reveals that people who recreate on the river are at considerably higher risk of getting sick.

From what?

When major thunderstorms erupt, heavy rainfall can swamp the city’s sewer systems causing overflows of stormwater into our waterways, Lake Michigan, and even into the basements of homeowners. Because our stormwater and sewage are combined, overflows contain high levels of bacteria, which are harmful to humans as well as fish and other aquatic creatures. That’s why people get sick, beaches get closed, massive die-offs of fish wash up on shore, and many homeowners get left with a stinking clean-up bill.

In response—and in compliance with the standards outlined in the Clean Water Act—the MWRD launched the Deep Tunnel Project. Officially known as the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (or TARP), the $3 billion project consists of more than 100 miles of deep, underground tunnels that direct excess stormwater to a planned series of three monumental reservoirs. The tunnels are done and one reservoir is on line. The other two are scheduled to be fully operational by 2015 and 2029.

OK. Once the Deep Tunnel project is complete, all of our water pollution problems will be history, yes?

Not quite.

Even if Deep Tunnel ultimately results in not one drop of sewage-tainted stormwater overflow into our waterways, they still contain dangerously high levels of harmful bacteria and other toxic materials.

Wait a minute. Aren’t water treatment plants supposed to take care of that?

Depends. Take a guess at how many steps are involved in treating wastewater?

  1. Two
  2. Three
  3. Ten
  4. Fifteen

The answer—for most treatment plants—is B. Three. The first step involves removing dirt, sand, organic solids (think what gets flushed down your toilet), and various greases, oils, and fats. During the second step, “good” bacteria help break down the remaining organic material. The third step largely involves disinfection to destroy “bad” bacteria and other pathogens. Or to put it plainly, stuff that could make us sick.

The trouble is most of the MWRD plants skip step three. As Senator Dick Durbin pointed out in a recent statement, “Chicago is the only major metropolitan area in the nation that does not disinfect the sewage that flows into its river.”

Are you kidding—we don’t even disinfect our sewage?

Nope. And we’re talking a lot of sewage that is only semi-treated. Any idea how much of the total water in the Chicago Area Waterways System—as all of our local rivers and canals are known collectively—comes from sewage treatment plants?

  1. 10 percent
  2. 20 percent
  3. 30 percent
  4. 70 percent

The answer is D. That’s right, an astonishing 70 percent of the water in our river system is semi-treated wastewater. Left untreated are literally hundreds of different kinds of bacteria, most of them from human waste.


Yep. But change is on the horizon. In a May 2011 letter, the US Environmental Protection Agency strongly urged the Illinois Pollution Control Board to adopt stricter water quality standards because portions of the Chicago Areas Waterways System—or CAWS—have “been transformed into a valuable recreational asset that citizens increasingly use for boating, canoeing, kayaking, jet and water skiing, tubing, and swimming.”

After initially opposingstricter standards, a month later the MWRD voted to adopt a policy to disinfect the water discharged from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. Soon, the Illinois Pollution Control Board is expected to follow suit by passing stricter water quality standards, which would require the disinfection of treatment plant effluent.

What is disinfection, really?

It’s like washing your hands after you use the bathroom. You can use soap and water. Or anti-bacterial hand-sanitizer. As the last step in water treatment plants, a couple of options include exposing effluent to ultraviolet light or ozone.

Won’t disinfection cost a lot?

Preliminary estimates vary widely. However, a recent MWRD report pegs the cost of ultraviolet disinfection at two treatment plants at 46 million. Although that sounds (and is) a lot of money, the same report reveals that breaks down to just $1.94 per household per day. The amount would be even less if the federal government picks up part of the tab, which it often does for such large public works projects.

But the fact is, no one can accurately estimate how much disinfection would cost because no decision has been made how to do it at how many different plants. Commissioner Debra Shore, one of the leading voices for disinfection on the MWRDGC board, has called for an updated study to evaluate new and emerging technologies that might be more cost effective and energy efficient.

Along with technological advances, Shore points out the moral and even spiritual advances that compel us to re-think and re-envision the river. “What may have been acceptable, even necessary to do to the river in the 19th century no longer is. People are drawn to our waters. They want to recreate on them. Those charged with the care of our waters—and, in a way, that’s all of us—need to come to the table as partners and decide what we want our waterways to be in the 21st century.”

That’s great. But do I have to wait until the water is disinfected before I go out on the river?

Not according to Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. One of several organizations advocating for a cleaner, more accessible, more vibrant river, Friends has been leading canoe and kayak tours of the river for 20 years.

“We recommend common sense precautions when you’re out on the river,” says Frisbie. “Don’t touch your eyes. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. But the point is, we need stricter water quality standards so no one has to worry about their health while on the river. It’s a wonderful place to paddle.”

Jessica Dexter, staff attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center—one of the partners pressing for stricter water quality standards—agrees. “Be safe, but get out on the river. I’ve canoed it several times. The view of the downtown skyline from the river is unforgettable. And other parts of the river are a lot more wild and natural than you’d expect.”

So, how do I get on the river?

First go to the Friends website and click on canoe trips. While there, you can also find out how to add your voice to those petitioning for stricter water standards. Also, you can check out one of the growing number of riverside outfitters that rent canoes and kayaks. Just make sure to pack the hand sanitizer along with the sunscreen when you take a paddle on the river. A Nature Haven. A Paddler’s Paradise. And soon, Toilet Water no more.

quick quotes

“Discharging untreated sewage into the Chicago River is a threat to public health and unacceptable in a great city. Today, Chicago is the only major metropolitan area in the nation that does not disinfect the sewage that flows into its river. I agree with the EPA’s decision to raise water quality standards in and around Chicago to reflect this new reality as many other cities—such as Washington, D.C. and Boston—have done. We have an opportunity to improve our waterways and make them more accessible for future generations.” Senator Dick Durbin

“One of our greatest natural assets should not be used as a toilet. Disinfecting the Chicago River is long overdue, and we must work together to make sure that a waterway which runs through our communities is clean and safe.” Representative Mike Quigley

“Whether Lake Michigan or the Chicago River, improving water quality standards is essential for the health and safety of the millions of families and tourists who come to Chicago each year for recreation.” Senator Mark Kirk

“I support disinfection because it’s the right thing to do.” MWRD Commissioner Mariyana Spyropoulos

“Water quality standards for the Chicago River have not been reviewed in more than two decades. Now is the time for the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) to approve the Illinois EPA’s proposed disinfection rule and require MWRD to join modern municipalities across the country in requiring disinfection of sewage before releasing it into the river.” American Rivers in naming the Chicago River to America’s Most Endangered Rivers in 2011

quick hits

about the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

  • Primarily responsible for protecting our drinking water (Lake Michigan), improving the quality of water in our rivers and other waterways, and protecting homes and businesses from flood damages.
  • Serves 5.2 million people in Chicago and 124 suburban communities.
  • Serves an area measuring 872 square miles, or about 93 percent of Cook County.
  • Operates seven sewage treatment plants, including the largest one in the world.
  • Processes 1.4 billion of gallons of water per day.
  • Is near to completing the Deep Tunnel project, the nation’s largest public works project for flood and pollution control.

about the Chicago Area Waterways System (CAWS)

  • “The Chicago Area Waterways System consists of 78 miles of canals and modified streams located within Cook and surrounding counties. The CAWS consists of the Chicago River, its two main branches (North Branch and South Branch), as well as the Cal-Sag Channel, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, and the tributaries in an area extending from the metropolitan Chicago area to the Lockport vicinity. It also includes Lake Calumet.” (Source: Illinois Environmental Protection Agency)
  • 70 percent of its water comes from effluent – semi-treated water released from the seven WMRD water treatment plants.
  • Click here for a map of the Chicago Area Waterways System.

take action

Through Friends of Chicago River, you can send letters in support of disinfecting our waterways to the Illinois Pollution Control Board.

Also through the Friends of the Chicago River, you can take a survey about your use of the river, become a Chicago River Eco-warrior, or sign up for one of their canoe trips.

You may also take a paddle by contacting one of the outfitters that supplies canoes and kayaks at several locations along the river.

selected press coverage

Chicago Tribune:

CBS Chicago:

Water Reclamation District Votes to Disinfect Chicago River Sewage


Clean water runs through EcoMyths’ veins

Welcome to EcoMyths’ new website. We have a new look, but the same mission: to bring you simple nuggets of information about nature that are relevant to your daily life – and to have some fun with it! EcoMyths’ partners started busting myths in January 2009, inspired by the MythBusters TV show on Discovery Channel. Our whole first year was about Water in Chicago: Lake Michigan, the Chicago River system, and Illinois wetlands. We assembled a team of 21 people from 15 environmental groups in Chicago, all of whom had an interest in clean water.

The groups represented at the start included most of those who are still our partners today, including Alliance for the Great Lakes, Chicago Botanic Garden, Friends of the Chicago River, the Wetlands Initiative, DePaul University Environmental Science Department, the Wetlands Initiative, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Field Museum, Lake Forest Open Lands, and others. Even the City of Chicago Department of Environment chimed in on our early myth-busting efforts! Since then we have expanded our partnerships even further and are busting myths on all kinds of eco-topics!

We wanted to help people become aware of the sometimes unintended consequences of their well-intended actions and we thought busting environmental myths would be a fun way to go about it. As an active board member of a land trust in the Chicago region, I was motivated to help people with property adjacent to our nature preserves understand that their good intentions to create a lush, green lawn was making more work for our land managers. The chemical fertilizers our neighbors were using encouraged nasty, undesirable plants to grow in our woodlands and prairies – the same plants we were trying to get rid of! We realized that all of us make assumptions about how nature works, but there is no easy way to find out if our assumptions are right.

In 2009, EcoMyths was created to entertain and educate the public about the way nature works, simply as a collaboration among many partners. By the end of that year, the partners decided to incorporate as a non-profit organization — and EcoMyths Alliance was officially born!

Our early articles were all about water myths like

  • Is Lake Michigan so big it will never run out of water?
  • Is the Chicago River too dirty for fish?
  • Does pollution in Northern Illinois rivers stay in Illinois?
  • Do wetlands foster West Nile virus?

After our water series, we wrote about even more myths, including

  • Is dirt dead?
  • Are earthworms native to Illinois?
  • Are lawn fertilizers good for all plants?
  • Do pesticides kill only bad bugs?

This new website you are perusing introduces EcoMyths’ new myth-busting cartoons! We are growing our staff and will be adding even more topics, soliciting your ideas, expanding our offerings of regional events, and bringing you cutting-edge conservation science coverage. We will also be reaching out to you regularly on Twitter and Facebook, meeting you where you are spending time already. Your questions and ideas are the most important part of EcoMyths! We will be providing many ways for you to give us feedback and we look forward to hearing from you!

– Kate Sackman, President and Founder, EcoMyths Alliance


Myth: What Happens (and Pollutes) in Chicago Stays in Chicago

Think that since streams in Northern Illinois flow into Lake Michigan, Chicago’s water pollution remains local? Think again.

The Illinois River drains 11,000 square miles of our state, and draws water from three major river basins in the region. The river then flows west into the Mississippi River, not eastward towards Lake Michigan. Only water that flows across a very thin strip of Chicago’s shoreline runs directly into the lake.

Because waterways close to Chicago flow primarily away from the city and Lake Michigan, pollutants in these waters can become problems for our neighbors downstream. Pollution carried down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico contributes to a notorious “dead zone”—an area of lifelessness in the Gulf that is now over 8,000 square miles.

Fortunately, in recent years, Chicago has cleaned up its water, enabling the city to become a better neighbor by sending less pollution downstream.

Exploring Deeper

The rivers and streams of the Chicago area drain water from large areas of land. Three significant basins form part of the watershed of the Illinois River: the Kankakee, the Fox, and the Des Plaines/Chicago Rivers. A watershed is the term for the geographical area drained by a single river.

Chicago is located close to a continental divide—water on one side flows east to Lake Michigan, water on the other flows to the west. Since most of the watershed of the Illinois River is west of the divide, that river forms part of the vast Mississippi River watershed.

With the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900, its waters have been artificially incorporated into the Mississippi watershed. The majority of our waterways flow away from the region bringing with them all residual pollutants remaining in these rivers. Good management in the watershed and of our rivers has local benefits but it also benefits a surprisingly large region of the United States and its coastal waters.

The Problem

When it was accomplished, the reversal of the Chicago River was one of the great engineering feats of its time. The project was undertaken with considerable urgency because the natural flow of the Chicago River resulted in its discharge into Lake Michigan.

Since the Chicago River was used as the sink for human sewage and for our industrial and commercial waste, this created an unwholesome environment for the young city. Not only were there problems with appalling smells but there were very grave health implications with water-borne diseases reaching epidemic proportions.

At that time, one can say that what happened in Chicago, stayed in Chicago—with deadly consequences. The reversal of the river was an attempt to export our problems, or at the very least, to dilute them in the larger watercourses of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. The story of the reversal of the river is an important illustration that when it comes to waterways there is no such thing as “local.” The impact in one part of a watershed can have consequences elsewhere.

Although modern sanitation and water treatment facilities have greatly decreased Chicago’s impact on other regions, we need to remain vigilant.

For instance, a recent review of environmental problems in the Gulf of Mexico indicates that hypoxia (the elimination of oxygen in the water), which is a consequence of the polluted water discharge from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers, has resulted in the world’s second largest dead zone.

The extent to which Chicago contributes to this problem is debatable. A recent study has suggested that Illinois is one of nine out of 31 states in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basins that collectively contributes up to 75 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus (the main sources of water pollution) to that watershed.


Water drains from the land into aquatic systems. Streams, rivers, lakes, and the sea are ultimately connected in a complex global hydrological system. Because land and water are interconnected, the management of land and water resources should be considered together. We can minimize adverse impacts both regionally and beyond by thoughtful practices that minimize polluted runoff from the land into waterways.

What You Can Do

Many of the practices discussed in last month’s Myth are relevant for minimizing Chicago’s impact on regions beyond ours.

  • Cover Bare Soil: Keep areas of bare soil in your yard to a minimum. Consider adding native groundcover plants or applying mulch products over the exposed soil.
  • Minimize Use of Fertilizer: Apply lawn and garden fertilizers only if soil tests indicate a specific need.
  • Dispose of Household Chemicals Properly: Help your municipal wastewater treatment plant discharge the cleanest water possible. Many household chemicals and pharmaceuticals are not able to be removed by the treatment plant, so rather than flushing them down the drain, keep them out of our rivers by disposing of them according to package directions. A good source for where you can dispose of household chemicals is Earth911.
  • Compost Produce Waste: In the kitchen, consider composing your fruit and vegetable waste instead of pushing it down the garbage disposal. Some of the waste’s nutrients aren’t removed by the treatment plant, so it ends up “fertilizing” our river instead!
  • Support Clean Water Legislation: Support local ordinances and public policies designed to minimize the effects of urban development on river water quality. Check out the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Cook County Stormwater Management Plan or the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission.

Written by Liam Heneghan, the Institute for Nature and Culture, DePaul University


Myth: Clear Water Is Clean Water

Some parts of northern Wisconsin and Michigan are rugged landscapes dominated by boulders, gravel, and sand. These popular vacation areas have rivers and streams that are swift-flowing and appear clear, cool, and inviting.

But here in northern Illinois, our land surface is dominated by flat topography and fertile soils. Over the years as agriculture and urban development in the Chicago region progressed, the naturally slow and meandering stream flows were consolidated into faster-moving channels. The swifter currents erode soil along the riverbank and off the river bottom, and so the water isn’t always crystal-clear.

Yet despite these suspended soil particles, the river can still be “safe” and clean for many forms of recreation, and these waterways continue to function as important plant and animal habitat.

The Situation

The Chicago region is richly blessed with its vast network of streams and rivers. These waterways provide wonderful opportunities for recreation, and they also function as important plant and animal habitat.

But set within a landscape so dominated by human development, we’re often left to wonder some very logical questions about river water quality. Is it safe to paddle my canoe down the river or eat the fish I catch? Is the river safe for the herons and mink that I see along the shoreline? If the river water appears clear, does that guarantee that it’s clean?

The Problem

Streams and rivers are the drainage component of Nature’s plumbing system. They collect and convey rainwater that runs off our rooftops, lawns, parking lots, and roadways. Along the way, the flowing water may erode dirt from construction sites and other areas where there is bare soil. Most of us have seen the impacts of this land erosion when our rivers appear “murky” after a heavy rainstorm.

But after the storm subsides and the river water becomes clearer, there still can be other contaminants left in the water that, although invisible to our unaided eye, can have important environmental and public health impacts.

Lawn fertilizer nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen remain dissolved in the river water, so while these compounds are generally not toxic to animals and humans, they can contribute to profuse algae blooms that cause rivers to become choked with algae.

There might be bacterial contamination from failing septic systems, leaky sewer lines, or large congregations of wildlife—but since the bacteria are so tiny and microscopic, their numbers could be dangerously high even though the river water appears clear.

The Solution

The environmental and recreational goals for many our region’s streams and rivers are to have water that is both clear and clean.

To help keep the water clear, certain management approaches are used to reduce the volume of storm water runoff as well as the amount of soil eroding from the land surface. For example, you’ve probably seen black fabric fences alongside roadway construction projects—when properly installed this “silt fence” slows rainwater runoff from the site and helps prevent soil from being carried to downstream rivers.

Or, perhaps you’ve seen restoration projects in your community that added deep-rooted native plants along a riverbank to keep the slopes from washing away during high flows.

And as we learned earlier, there’s more to a healthy river than just clear water—we also want to help keep the river water clean and free of contaminants. Most of our region’s wastewater treatment plants discharge to rivers, so making sure they’re designed and consistently operated at peak efficiency is a must. Since a portion of lawn fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides usually end up in rainwater runoff (and ultimately our rivers), these products should be applied carefully and only when needed.

Taking personal responsibility for seemingly even minor sources of water pollution can help as well. A good example is cleaning up pet waste: it’s loaded with bacteria and nutrients that can wash down the storm sewer and into the river.

What You Can Do

If you like healthy rivers with clear, clean water, here are some things you can do:

  • Cover Bare Soil: Keep areas of bare soil in your yard to a minimum. Consider adding native groundcover plants, or apply mulch products over the exposed soil.
  • Minimize Fertilizer Use: Apply lawn and garden fertilizers only if soil tests indicate a specific need. Did you know that most of our region’s soils have a natural abundance of phosphorus, so adding more phosphorus will not only not make your plants grow better…but that also the phosphorus-laden runoff may “feed” algae blooms in downstream rivers? In fact, just a few months ago Wisconsin effectively banned the sale of lawn fertilizers containing phosphorus.
  • Dispose of Household Chemicals Safely: Help your municipal wastewater treatment plant discharge the cleanest water possible. Many household chemicals and pharmaceuticals are not able to be removed by the treatment plant, so rather than flushing them down the drain, keep them out of our rivers by disposing of them properly. Learn more at Lake County Household Chemical Waste Collections and Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, Household Chemical Waste Collection.
  • Compost Produce Waste: In the kitchen, consider composing your fruit and vegetable waste instead of pushing it down the garbage disposal. Why? Some of the waste’s nutrients aren’t removed by the treatment plant and so it ends up “fertilizing” our river instead. If composting isn’t an option for you, then throw all kitchen waste that had been destined for the garbage disposal in with your regular trash.
  • Support Urban Water Quality Policies: Support local ordinances and public policies designed to minimize the effects of urban development on river water quality. To start, check out the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Cook County Stormwater Management Plan or the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission.
  • Research Your Local River:To learn more about the water quality of your favorite stream or river, visit the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
  • Join a Water Protection Group: Consider becoming involved in river and watershed protection organizations. Take a look at the Prairie Rivers Network, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Watershed Planning Councils, or one of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ ecosystem partnerships that have assembled to protect our region’s waterways.

Written by Bob Kirschner, Chicago Botanic Garden


Myth: The Chicago River Is Too Dirty for Fish

Contrary to what many believe, the Chicago River is home to a diverse collection of nearly 70 species of fish, according to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

This increase from about 10 species in the 1970s can be attributed to the improving water quality in the Chicago River. Accordingly, the Chicago River has become a hub for freshwater recreational fishing.

In 2006, the Chicago Park District launched the annual Mayor Daley’s Chicago River Fishing Festival, which has increased in popularity with each year. Additionally, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources hosts Urban Fishing Clinics throughout the state.

Fish and the Chicago River

The Chicago River was once a shallow marshy corridor that meandered through a savannah-dominated landscape, an ideal habitat for fish. Fish like to spawn, mate, and mature in shallow, rocky areas of natural streams.

Expanding human population and increased commercial use of the waterway resulted in extensive alterations to the original Chicago River.

The main stem of the Chicago River is now a deep, straight channel that lacks the types of natural areas that allow fish to thrive. The river also has dams and other barriers and water level fluctuations that occur during heavy rains. In addition, industrial and surface pollution have been dumped into the River over the years. The combination of straight walls, dams, water level changes, and pollution have historically made the river less hospitable for fish than it would otherwise be.

The Solution

Restoration of habitat, especially through the use of in-stream structures, has become common practice in urban rivers.

In their study, Schwartz and Herricks evaluated a habitat improvement along a stretch of the North Branch of the Chicago River and demonstrated that abundance, biomass, and diversity of fishes were greater after restoration.

In another significant project Friends of the Chicago River, together with WRD Environmental, installed the first-ever Michigan Avenue Fish Hotel in the heart of downtown Chicago in 2005. The Fish Hotel is one way to help restore the Chicago River into a vibrant ecosystem by providing fish with constructed habitat otherwise absent from the Main Stem of the Chicago River. The Fish Hotel is a floating island that offers native aquatic plants that provide natural food and shelter for fish, as well as deeper fish cribs where bigger fish can rest.

Take a walk down the Chicago Riverwalk between State Street and Dearborn Street and take a look for yourself! The Fish Hotel will open for the season in May. Peek over the edge and you might see a shimmering green sunfish, baby bluegills, carp, and sometimes even Lake Michigan fish like trout and salmon that find their way in.

What You Can Do

While fishing continues to rise in popularity in the region, it is important to note that the Illinois Department of Public Health has issued advisories against dining too frequently on some species of fish found in the Chicago River. If a choice is made to eat fish caught in the river, the Illinois-Indiana Sea-Grant provides preparation guidelines to minimize the associated risks.

Learn more about how your actions affect the Chicago River by visiting the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. The museum is located in the southwest bridge tower at Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue and is easily accessed via the Riverwalk. It will open for the season in May.

According to Windy City Fishing, fishing is enjoyable all along the Chicago River. However, the best spots seem to be: the North Shore Channel, the North Branch from Foster to downtown, as well as downtown, in some parts of the South Branch, and the confluence of the North Branch and North Shore Channel at Foster Ave.

Not interested in fishing? The Chicago River offers other recreational pursuits for both the active and passive river lover. For a new vantage point, participate in a guided canoe trip along the river. Trips are offered by a number of organizations including Friends of the Chicago River and the Chicago Park District.

Cyclists can enjoy a number of bike trails along many sections of the river.

Finally, lend a hand to foster the continued vitality of the Chicago River by signing up to join thousands of others for hands-on environmental work in the Chicago River Day held each year in early May.

Written by Dana Murphy, Friends of the Chicago River


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