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Will Grunewald / Medill

A water taxi passes under the Wells Street Bridge.  The Chicago River is a source of transportation and increasingly of recreation.

Clean Water Act celebrates 40th anniversary amid ongoing efforts to improve Chicago River

by Will Grunewald
Oct 17, 2012


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Paddlers on the Chicago River gather around the river's "Fish Hotel."

The Clean Water Act turns 40 on Thursday, but since its Oct. 18, 1972, enactment the legislation hasn’t mellowed with age. In Cook County, regulatory agencies and environmental groups have only recently brought the legal requirements of the act to bear on efforts to limit pollution in the Chicago River.

“The Clean Water Act set an ambitious goal to change the waters of America. It says that we have the legal tools to move people forward,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River.

“We’re far from perfect but we’re so much better off than we were,” she said Tuesday.

The Clean Water Act originally prescribed that waterways be suitable for “recreation in and on the water” by 1983, 11 years after passing into law. Twenty-eight years later, in 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency demanded that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District – Cook County’s primary sewage management agency – begin the elsewhere commonplace practice of disinfecting wastewater before dispensing it into the Chicago River.

“The Chicago River was overlooked because historically it had been very polluted and it was difficult for people to picture the river being used for recreation,” said Frisbie.

The next step in bringing Chicago waterways up to Clean Water Act standards, according to area environmental groups, is limiting overflows of untreated sewage into waterways. Chicago and surrounding communities use combined sewer systems that collect both waste- and stormwater. When even moderate rainfall pushes these overtaxed systems past their capacity and, they discharge a mixture of untreated sewage and storm water through release gates and into Chicago waterways.

Such discharge generally contains microbial pathogens, toxic pollutants and “floatables” such as tampons and medical syringes, according to the EPA.

The inability of combined sewer systems to handle stormwater has other consequences, too. The backup can cause flooding and in severe instances has re-reversed the flow of the Chicago River into Lake Michigan, carrying sewage and pollution with it.

In 1982, the same year the Clean Water Act went into effect, the Water Reclamation District had already initiated plans for an underground tunnel and reservoir system – the Deep Tunnel project – that would drastically increase the system’s capacity to handle waste- and stormwater during heavy rain. Though the reservoirs are not yet completed, the tunnels are, and they have already had a positive impact.

“The water quality right now is dramatically better than it was when the river used to receive raw sewage on a regular basis,” Frisbie said.

Still, Friends of the Chicago River and other environmental groups are demanding a greater degree of compliance with Clean Water Act standards. Last year the EPA negotiated an agreement with the Water Reclamation District to define a long-term plan for limiting overflows from the collective sewer system. Friends of the Chicago River, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups objected to the specifics of the plan in a 67-page public comment submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The public comment criticized the lack of an enforceable project deadline (currently set for 2029), the absence of a monitoring plan, and a “half-baked and poorly thought-out” implementation of green technologies to capture rainfall before it reaches the sewer system – elements central to comparable agreements based on Clean Water Act regulations in other U.S. cities.

Environmental groups also take issue with how the Reclamation District reached its agreement with the EPA.

“The public was never invited into this process,” said Ann Alexander, lead attorney for NRDC. The Clean Water Act requires input from affected residents in the formulation of a long-term plan for overflow management. Instead, environmental groups say the agreement simply reflects a “wholesale adoption” of the Reclamation District’s pre-existing plans and schedule.

Water quality is headed in a positive direction, even if not as quickly as hoped by environmental advocates. According to the Water Reclamation District website, the McCook Reservoir slotted for completion in 2017 will have a 10-billion-gallon capacity. The smaller, 350-million-gallon Majewski Reservoir near O’Hare Airport has provided flood relief estimated to have saved $250 million in flood damage since completion in 1998.

“Our goal is that the river is fishable and swimmable,” Frisbie said. “That’s not far-fetched. It’s going to happen.”

Even 40 years after its inception, the Clean Water Act plays a central role in shaping debate over the ecological future of the Chicago River, Alexander said.

“It remains a very strong, effective, well thought-out tool for protecting our waterways, despite lapses in implementation.”