Celebrating Disinfection: Steps to a Cleaner River

Improving Water Quality in the River: 2012

Changing the water quality standards for the Chicago River required the Illinois EPA to conduct a Use Attainability Analysis, which is a Clean Water Act tool used to prove that new standards are necessary to protect current or attainable uses—like kayaking or fishing. These reviews are supposed to happen every three years, but the resources for it here were not made available.

Friends of the Chicago River and a host of other groups, including Openlands, started advocating for a UAA, and in 2002 Illinois EPA (IEPA) started the process.

In 2007 after five years of research and analysis, the IEPA completed their work having determined that the Chicago River system (including the Calumet) should have higher water quality standards and their recommendations were filed with the Illinois Pollution Control Board.

Where are we now?

Since the UAA process started Friends has been working nonstop with a task force from Environmental Law & Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, Openlands, the Sierra Club of Illinois and the Southeast Environmental Task Force to ensure that the proposed standards were passed. 

To be successful it required us to collaborate closely, integrate all of our skill sets and knowledge, and recruit credible experts on topics ranging from electrical consumption to epidemiology to fisheries to water trails.

Because the proceedings were taking so long—there were more IPCB hearings on our water quality standards than on any other pollution issue in the state of Illinois— in May 2011, the US EPA stepped in and stated unequivocally that the new standards had to protect recreation IN or ON the water—that meant swimming and a water quality whirlwind started after that.

All eyes were suddenly on the Chicago River and the media, the people, and our elected officials all agreed it was time to repair what Senator Durbin called the “President’s home town river.” After over a decade, new recreational standards were approved and in March 2012, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District began working on the implementation of wastewater disinfection technologies at two wastewater treatment plants (Calumet and O’Brien) that will meet the new standards by the start of the 2015 recreation season.  This critical investment is the next step in transforming the Chicago River that is the center of so many communities.  Friends has been advocating for this major upgrade since our joint report “Waterways for Our Future” was published in 2000.

Friends has championed this effort since 1999 and is thrilled that we are now in such good company for our cause.  

Read all about it in the  Chicago Tribune here and check out the EPA's river ruling here. 

What Waterways are Affected by the improved standards?

The area under review is known as the Chicago Area Waterways, or CAWS. CAWS consists of the Chicago River, its North Branch and South Branch, the North Shore Channel, the Cal-Sag Channel, the Calumet river system, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, Lake Calumet and the tributaries in an area extending from the metropolitan Chicago area to the Lockport vicinity.

What are the effects of the improved standards?

The most critical are disinfection of wastewater treatment plant effluent for people and improved temperature and habitat standards to protect native fish.

What Does it Mean for You?

Clean water is guaranteed by the Clean Water Act and the Constitution of Illinois, yet every day all kinds of pollution is dumped into the Chicago River, the Cal-Sag and Calumet River. This means that while our families and friends paddle, fish, swim, Jet Ski or row, we are exposing ourselves to harmful bacteria from sewage that can make us sick.

As the water quality standards are changed to reflect how we use and want to use our rivers, we will all be able to share these wonderful natural and recreational resources that help make metropolitan Chicago a great place to live and continue to ensure that we are leaders in protecting our planet.