Big Breakthrough for People and Fish

Friends of the Chicago River announced this week that the Illinois EPA issued the City of Chicago’s new sewer outfall permits after a multi-year effort to reduce water pollution in the river and make it a safe haven for people and wildlife.

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Effective April 1, the permit, known as a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, governs 184 city-owned outfalls that discharge into the reaches of the Chicago-Calumet River system and the Des Plaines River in Chicago.  

“Friends commends the City for committing to this process and choosing to work with us to find solutions to the persistent problems of sewage and litter pollution which are exacerbated by the climate crisis,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “Without a strong, enforceable permit, a future administration could roll back their environmental commitment if political wills change. The new NPDES permit makes that impossible.”

Among the new requirements are the establishment of sensitive areas around 10 priority outfalls in high recreation areas, and the prioritization of green infrastructure for environmental justice communities. The permit also requires the purchase of litter control technology and more robust and frequent monitoring of discharges during intense rain events which can result in sewer overflows into the river, which bring a myriad of other pollutants such nutrients which are listed as one of the nation’s top waterway stressors, according to USEPA National Rivers and Streams Assessment. Friends will be instrumental in updating the City’s Green Stormwater Infrastructure Strategy, which is also included in the permit and will need to be complete within the year complete with measureable outcomes.

Core to the process was a series of eight community forums Friends convened in 2021 to ensure public input in the process which Friends documented in a report presented to the City to inform the new requirements. The report, Investing Together: Using NPDES: A Community Approach to Improve the River, Protect Public Health, and Reduce Sewage and Litter Pollution, details the participants’ priorities including health, safety, and equity. Representatives from 26 organizations including frontline community groups, environmental and planning nonprofit groups, city departments, and government agencies participated.

The Clean Water Act is the primary federal law governing the elimination of water pollution in U.S. rivers, lakes, and streams and requires dischargers, such as Chicago, to secure permits through the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. The NPDES program regulates point sources that discharge pollutants including sewage and floatables (outfall-sourced litter/waste). It is at issue because Chicago area sewers are a web of combined pipes that carry sewage, industrial waste, and stormwater from homes, businesses, and streets all in the same system. Most of the time it is diverted to Metropolitan Water Reclamation District water reclamation plants for treatment; the plants can manage the typical day-to-day capacity just fine before it is discharged back into the waterways. However, even with the massive Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, the system can be overwhelmed by heavy rains and result in sewage and other pollutants being discharged to the river.

The permit is available on Illinois EPA’s website.