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Gloria Oh/MEDILL

Three out of Chicago's seven water reclamation plants currently disinfect their effluent. Calumet and North Side will be added to that list by 2016.

Coming clean: Swimmable Chicago River to become reality

by Gloria Oh
March 13, 2012

Flow final

Gloria Oh/MEDILL

The Chicago region has seven water reclamation plants that treat effluent, or sewage. Stickney is the world's largest water plant with a flow of 687.6 million gallons of water per day.


Gloria Oh/MEDILL

Fecal coliform, or bacteria that includes E. coli, had the lowest percent compliance for water quality parameters in Chicago's river system.


Gloria Oh/MEDILL

Signs like this one warn people from coming into direct contact with the Chicago River due to levels of untreated bacteria such as fecal coliform.

Environmentally conscious Chicagoans praised the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s announcement earlier this month to disinfect effluent at the North Side and Calumet water plants, making the Chicago River cleaner and available for primary contact recreation by March 2016.

Although the news has been well-received by kayakers, many wonder why the process took so long and have questions about the cost of the new plans.

“It’s something that we’ve been pushing forever since we’ve been on the river,” said Dave Olson, owner and lead instructor of Kayak Chicago.

Throughout the past 20 years, Olson says he has witnessed the river change from being primarily industrial to a more recreational waterway. “From the time we’ve been on the river, we’ve seen huge changes in the quality of the water,” he said. “The turtles, mink, beaver, hundreds of bird species that migrate in the area [have come back], so it’s great to see the transition from how it was.”

He hopes that the future plans will only make the water cleaner. Signs posted around the river caution recreational users from engaging in primary contact with the waters due to bacterial levels, but this hasn’t deterred the avid kayaker from getting into the waters.

“I’ve swam in the river hundreds of times,” he said. "It doesn’t affect you the way that I think the general public thinks it does.”

Currently three out of seven of Chicago’s water reclamation plants disinfect their wastewater before pumping the effluent back out into the river.

These reclamation plants, Hanover Park, Egan and Kirie, discharge into general use water regulated by the Illinois Environmental Protection agency, and all three use chlorination/dechlorination technology to disinfect the effluent.

So why did it take so long to change regulations?

“That’s a question I’ve often asked myself several times,” said Susan Hedman, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator for the Great Lakes Region. “I understand that the Illinois Pollution Control Board meeting dealing with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the Chicago area waterway system is the longest regulatory proceeding in Illinois history." 

She said that the principal reasons for change included new leadership at the district and the increasing amount of people who saw the river as a recreational waterway.

While it was a many year process, the EPA broke ground last May. “EPA made a formal determination that the waterway was being used for primary contact recreation, and water quality standards needed to be upgraded to protect people who were using the river in ways that caused them to come in contact with the water.”

With regulations in place, the district put together an interdepartmental task force to determine the optimal technology to disinfect at North Side and Calumet plants.

Catherine O’Connor, assistant director of monitoring and research at the district who helped lead the task force, said her team reevaluated 2005 plans to disinfect at the two plants.

One of the major differences since then has been cost. The projected costs to implement disinfection are now capped at roughly $109 million. Previously, the price tag was estimated at a heftier $240 million.

“Infrastructure is the difference,” O’Connor said of the lowered costs. Using Calumet’s preexisting chlorine contact tank from the eighties will save around $50 million. Not adding two low-level pump stations, which they determined they didn’t need and also costs $25 million each, brings total savings to $100 million. “The balance of the difference is that we are seeing lower flows at the plant,” she said.

Olson, who gives architectural tours of the river, said the river has played a vital role in the city’s history.

“We tell stories of how the river used to be 100 years ago, and even beyond that, when it was all prairie and a meandering stream that went through these grasslands, and you can kind of start to envision it,” he said.

He’s glad to see that the city is standing behind restoring the river. “You know, we look forward to them taking care of the river like it should be.”