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Cat Boardman/Medill

New website alerts Chicagoans of when to avoid toxic river

by Cat Boardman
May 28, 2014


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Cook County contains about 400 CSOs, or combined sewer outflows, points that can release sewage water when storms cause sewers to fill to capacity faster than water treatment plants are able to process the water.


Cat Boardman/MEDILL

Construction began on the city's $3.5 billion Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) in the late 1960's. The project has decreased the number of CSO events from 100 per year to 35. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District hopes when TARP is completed in 2029, there will be fewer than five occurrences each year.


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Sewer overflow events force Chicago River Canoe and Kayak to close or redirect their customers about five times a year, sometimes for two to three days at a time. The other 30 CSOs each year usually occur during storms, when the company is already closed.


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CSOs prevent Chicagoans from taking full advantage of all the river has to offer.

A new website created by the civic engagement group Open City, lets Chicago residents know when sewage is being dumped into the Chicago River, which happens about 35 times a year.

The site alerts visitors when and where these dumps, called combined sewer overflows or CSOs, are happening and it explains why. When heavy rainstorms hit the city, the sewers fill to capacity faster than the water treatment plants are able to process the water, so rainwater mixed with sewage overflows into the river.

While most people just consider this disgusting and unsanitary, for Ryan Chew, it’s a matter of preserving his business. Chew is the owner of Chicago River Canoe and Kayak.

“There are days when you don’t want to put people on the water, and now we’re able to know,” said Chew, who uses the website to help run the business. “We’re able to use it to decide, ‘Oh yeah, today’s not a good morning to put the 6th grade class whose teachers were going to bring them out, or conversely, there’s a little bit of rain, but it hasn’t affected the North branch.”

The company is affected by the sewer overflows about five times a year, sometimes for two or three days at a time. During the other CSO occurrences each year, the overflows happen at a different part of the river or during storms when customers couldn’t kayak anyway.

To prevent CSOs from occurring, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (WMRD), which manages Chicago’s wastewater, has spent $3.5 billion on TARP, the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan. The project allows rainwater to collect in underground reservoirs until water treatment plants can process the wastewater.

Before parts of TARP were operational, nearly 100 CSOs occurred each year. The project has reduced that figure to 35 each year, and the District hopes to lower the number to five per year.

“It’s going to really, we believe, reduce CSOs,” said Adam Gronski, principal civil engineer for the MWRD. “But everything that has a capacity has a capacity ultimately.”

Though the project won’t completely prevent sewer overflows, Open City founder Derek Eder said it’s not just a matter of stopping the overflows, it’s where to get the money to pay for the projects.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh that’s gross. Don’t do it.’ But it’s another thing entirely to actually fix the problem,” Eder said. “There’s a real question about whether it’s something we can spend money on as a society. Do we want to prioritize that or do we want to prioritize other things that also need money?”

Eder said there are small things Chicago residents can do to help: avoid washing dishes or laundry during storms and use rain gardens and barrels to keep water on their property instead of letting it flow into sewer drains.