The mission to clean up the Chicago River must continue!

Is the Mission Over on the Chicago River?

It looks like we can cross mission impossible (aka, Chicago River disinfection approval) off the list…so can we all go home now?

First, for those of you who managed to miss the major buzz on the river this past year, here’s the quick rundown: Sewage effluent makes up about 70 percent of the river water [PDF]. That’s not good. And despite several area organizations having advocated for years that we needed to disinfect said eau de toilet, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) wasn’t budging—until the head honchos over at the EPA said enough is enough.

The EPA highlighted area waterways that needed upgraded standards in green.

The MWRD came on board shortly thereafter, and they’re set to begin disinfection—by the 2016 recreational season—at two of three plants that currently aren’t doing it. Shazam. Meanwhile, disinfection at the third one, Stickney, is under review (it’s more complicated since it’s widely considered the largest wastewater treatment facility in the world).

Since that news broke, a lot of people are wondering whether our work here is done.

In short, definitely not. Aside from the fact that disinfection is four years off, there’s still plenty to do, like improving water quality from the Loop to the Gulf of Mexico, protecting against invasive species, and making the river more accessible for people and wildlife alike. How do we know all this? We got the scoop from experts Tim Loftus, PhD, a water resource planner for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), and John Quail, director of watershed planning for Friends of the Chicago River.

Read on for the details, and don’t worry—this message will not self-destruct when you’ve finished.

Sewage Spills Happen (Should We Choose to Accept It or Not)

Here’s the reality: Disinfection won’t keep the river free of untreated sewer water. Like almost 800 other U.S. cities, Chicago uses an antiquated combined sewer system, which means we collect all our rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe. The MWRD plants treat that water (and soon they’ll disinfect it too, huzzah), then dump it into local waterways.

The bad news is that when it rains or snows a lot, the treatment plants overflow and that excess sewage (Combined Sewer Overflow, or CSO) goes straight into the river…which means even if we’re disinfecting all the water that goes into the plant, there’s still some truly disgusting stuff going into the river anyway. As Loftus says, that poses “a significant threat not just to the river but also the lake.”

MWRD workers in one of the Deep Tunnel areas that’s already been constructed.

He and Quail agree that, until the CSO-busting Tunnel and Restoration Project (aka Deep Tunnel) project wraps in 2029, green infrastructure development can help us reduce the frequency and magnitude of CSO in the meantime. That includes implementing things like installing permeable pavement, disconnecting downspouts from sewers, and planting native grass. (The EPA has more on that here.)

Quail, whose organization has helped develop or fund stormwater infrastructure projects across the watershed, says such measures have real value both environmentally and economically. He cites the example of a seawall installation project in Northbrook, something that was initially slated to cost $4 million. “We went and talked to them [Northbrook residents] about native edging and other green options, and that cut the cost to $2 million. Lower costs certainly make it a lot easier to sell green infrastructure.”

(Speaking of which, there’s plenty more on that topic. Look for another myth on CSOs coming up this fall.)

The Mission to Improve Water Quality Begins With…Chemistry

Another thing disinfection won’t solve is the excess of nutrients flowing through the river. Unlike in healthy food, too many nutrients can actually be a very bad thing for water…it’s a chemical thing.

Loftus explains that phosphorous (P) and nitrogen (N) pollution from agriculture, industry—and to some extent, even household products—jeopardizes river water quality by increasing biological oxygen demand.

This is not a problem unique to our river, either—excess P and N loads are responsible for creating the dreaded Dead Zones in the world’s oceans. And, just as no man is an island, no part of our waterways is isolated. In fact, landlocked Chicagoland has been a contributor to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s easy to think about our own interests here in Chicago, but exporting higher quality river water means that everyone downstream also benefits,” he reasons. “We all live in a watershed—we’re usually downstream of someone and upstream of someone else. If we want to make a contribution to improving Gulf Hypoxia [low oxygen waters], for example, we need to reduce nutrient loads from wastewater effluent discharged into streams and rivers and agricultural land use.”

I Spy…Plentiful Wildlife That Depends on the River

Friends of the Chicago River’s Fish Hotel attracts thousands of fish to its Riverwalk location.

And speaking of oxygen, let’s not forget the river critters it supports. The 156-mile Chicago River system, as Quail says, “is more than just the water that runs through it. We’re also talking about the creatures below its surface and along its banks.”

Right now 70+ species of fish, 60+ species of birds, reptiles and amphibians, and mammals like the otter, beaver, fox, and coyote all rely on the river. Since disinfection doesn’t remove the N and P problem, Quail says it’s still very important that we continue to promote healthy, oxygen-rich habitats across the watershed.

“The river has really decent habitat for [fish, macro-invertebrates, and mussels] in some places, and no habitat in other places, so we’ve been working in collaboration with the MWRD, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and others to connect those spaces and to identify where water quality is the limiting factor.” With that information, they can then introduce more oxygen to increase livability for fish, and create new habitats like fish hotels or fish buckets along the walls.

Installing bird boxes and rebuilding riverbanks are other ways communities can support Chicago River animal habitats.

Cruise-ing Along Toward Better Recreational Access

Improving accessibility will help more of us enjoy this gorgeous perspective of the city. (Photo by Cristina Rutter)

Want to grab a kayak and hit the river? With disinfection in the works, you won’t be the only one. But, as Quail and Loftus both contend, the fact that the river has been used for industrial purposes for so long means there are few resources to support a big increase in river-recreation.

“The city will be building four boathouses in various locations along the river in preparation for the boon. But there are unique challenges to increasing public access in an urban area like Chicago. For one, apartment dwellers will be hard-pressed to store their own paddling equipment, so Friends is working with the city to develop storage and rental options.

There’s also the issue of putting in and out—right now, as Loftus says, much of the downtown part of the river is “in canyon—a hyper-urban area where it’s hard for paddlers to get in or out. That’s going to be hard to change.” Friends is working to create more access points for these smaller types of crafts.

Another challenge is quite literally an obstacle: Several old dams make paddling more dangerous, forcing paddlers to get out of their boats and maneuver around them. Since the dams were installed for mostly aesthetic reasons back in 1910-1930, Quail and his colleagues advocate for removing them.

Combating the Ultimate Masters of Disguise, aka, Invasive Species

Asian carp. There, we said it. Dealing with this invasive species is one of the biggest head-scratchers for Chicago River advocates (and just about anyone interested in water issues). You’ve probably heard talk of re-reversing the river, closing down locks, shooting the jumpy little devils, and more—it’s kind of a big deal.

While there are lots of smart people working on this issue, it’s by no means solved, and Chicago River advocates like Quail are working to make sure the solutions keep the river’s well-being in mind even as we protect the lake. (But the Asian carp issue is a whole other story—stay tuned for a future EcoMyth on this one!)

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Busted

Passing disinfection was huge to be sure, even though it’s four years from implementation. But there is still a lot more to do to increase the health of this important waterway, including improving water quality by decreasing nitrogen and phosphorous levels, addressing CSO issues more aggressively, upping accessibility for humans and wildlife alike, and protecting the area from invasive species.

It may feel overwhelming, but it all comes down to good, sustained stewardship. “Embracing and stewarding, as opposed to ignoring, will [continue to] benefit the people, river, critters, and other forms of life that depend on river,” concludes Loftus. Hear, hear.

One Green Thing You Can Do

“Be careful of what you flush down your toilets and drains,” suggests Loftus. How so? Follow his personal lead and buy environmentally-friendly cleaning products.

Another way to help? Support our river by volunteering for organizations like Friends of the Chicago River.

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