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