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Bubbly Creek, viewed from Racine Avenue and 35th Street, is fenced off by metal fences and barbed wire.

Chicago River cleanup will leave Bubbly Creek still bubbling with waste for now

by Elena Schneider
Aug 28, 2013


Elena Schneider/MEDILL

The graphic shows four new boathouse locations, announced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011, as an effort to encourage the Chicago River cleanup. Bubbly Creek is also noted on the map, but there will be no boathouse built there.

Bubbly Creek, a polluted South Side fork of the Chicago River, will escape the current mandate to clean up area waterways for water sports just as two new disinfection facilities break ground this month, heading toward the goal of making the river swimmable.

Two years ago, the Illinois Pollution Control Board mandated disinfection under pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a breakthrough for environmental activists pushing to clean up the river and raise pollution restrictions. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the agency responsible for meeting water pollution standards, is building the facilities and expects them to be complete in December 2015.

Chicago is the only major U.S. city that didn't disinfect effluent from wastewater treatment plants.

But this leap forward to open miles of river to more recreation  comes without solving the decades-long eyesore that is Bubbly Creek—the south fork of the south branch of the Chicago River that still bubbles with century-old wastes dumped from the Chicago stockyards. The channel flows north from 38th Street at the Racine Avenue Pump Station to the south branch of the river.

“Bubbly Creek is still a problem,” said Jessica Dexter, an attorney who specializes in water pollution with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. “But Bubbly Creek is on the back burner.”

The Environmental Law and Policy Center worked with the MWRD to designate Bubbly Creek as a separate entity in February, “so we could address it separately from the other waterways,” Dexter said. “Rather than holding up standards for the rest of the waterways, we asked for Bubbly Creek to be a separate sub-docket.”

Today, Bubbly Creek is surrounded by commercial buildings, but most of it is fenced off, which limits access to the water.

“If the water is pretty clean on the North Branch, then Bubbly Creek won’t affect that part of the water quality standards,” Dexter said.

Bubbly Creek’s legendary bubbles and smell were first described by Upton Sinclair in his landmark book "The Jungle," an expose on the Chicago meatpacking industry published at the turn of the century. Factory workers tossed carcasses and commercial run-off directly into the creek, a common practice at the time. The decomposing material bubbled to the surface, and still does, earning the creek its name.

Chicagoans treated the waterways as “open dumps,” said Allison Fore, spokeswoman for the MWRD.  For many in the developing world, this is still the case.

But Bubbly Creek now suffers from storms more than slaughterhouses. Like many area waterways, when a storm floods Chicago’s combined storm and sanitary sewer system, excess water spills into the creek and other area rivers. Opening the locks to Lake Michigan relieves flooding but pours polluted water into the lake. 

It’s a problem that the MWRD is struggling to solve across Cook County. “The goal is to balance the need for stormwater management while maintaining the integrity of water quality,” Fore said.

And Bubbly Creek is not the only urban creek with this problem. “It’s a national issue,” said Tim Pine, an environmental protection specialist at the University of California at Berkley.

“A lot of the sewer systems and potable water lines were installed a hundred years ago, but they were designed to last more than 30 to 50 years, at best,” he said. For Chicago and other towns, the dangers of leaving waterways lluted include disease, contamination, habitat decay and species depletion.

The Chicago River was reversed to flow away from the lake a century ago, protecting the city's drinking water but adding pollution to the river many towns relied on for their water supply.

For all that time, Bubbly Creek was left unattended, but in 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers chose Bubbly Creek for a feasibility study to examine the cost for ecosystem restoration.

“It was a logical thing to consider since it’s a historic creek in need of restoration,” said Mike Padilla, project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers for the Bubbly Creek study. The group is expected to release its conclusions and projected cost to Congress in September, but it is waiting for final approval, Padilla said. The project website lists a range of solutions, including selective dredge, capping, creating channel base flow and no federal action as all possible conclusions for the study.

One aspect of the solution for Bubbly Creek is the McCook Reservoir, with phase one expected to be completed in 2017 and phase two in 2029. The reservoir, an old rock quarry, will collect the polluted overflows from the combined sewers that come with any heavy rain.

“Racine Avenue Pump Station overflows on a certain regular basis to where the creek would continually have sewage overflow and it wouldn’t be viable, but with the McCook Reservoir, the amount of overflow is dramatically reduced,” Padilla said. “So it allows us to look at a serious restoration. It won’t completely eliminate overflows when there are really big storms, doesn’t eliminate combined sewer overflow, but it reduces so much that it is made viable.”

The overflows in the reservoir can be treated and discharged to the river when the rain stops, making room for overflows from the next storm.

Once the sewage overflow is under control, the next major concern is the creek floor. “The remnants of that mean it’s a unique sediment at the bottom of the creek,” Padilla said. “It’s extremely soft, it’s like toothpaste at the bottom. That’s not conducive to life.”

He also said the project requires restoring the habitat by controlling the invasive species and replanting native plants.

The feasibility study cost $2.65 million, but restoration will most likely cost more than that.

“We don’t use a normal benefit cost ratio, because it’s very difficult to put a dollar value on habitat,” Padilla said. Once the analysis is released, the fate of Bubbly Creek lays with Congress, which could either vote to approve or to reject the resolution. And the timeline is even murkier. “It’s a guessing game when it starts,” he said, noting construction could start anywhere from a year to a decade.

Until the army releases its study, environmentalists and city officials will wait. “Until Corps comes out with its recommendations, no one has a plan as to how to manage the creek,” Dexter said.

Even if the restoration project is approved, it may be difficult to convince constituents to support it.

“We’re still fighting that battle where you can’t see the physical evidence of this problem, that’s where it’s hard to get changes on a policy level,” Pine said. “When they’re confronted with the bills to maintain the environment, the number seems astronomical. It is very tough to sell, to convince the public they really do need to pay to keep the systems functioning or to improve them. And this is happening against the backdrop of ever more stringent environmental concerns.”

For Padilla, cleaning Bubbly Creek is “a very worthy goal,” but one with a long list of problems. “There is a lot of work that is remaining,” he said.