Settlement will bolster Chicago River restoration

Efforts to clean up the Chicago River took a huge step forward this week, when the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago settled a Clean Water Act lawsuit that will end its longstanding habit of using the river as a sewer.

The settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to complete a deep tunnel storage system and a massive reservoir that will reduce sewer overflows by capturing more stormwater. The district, which agreed to pay a $675,000 fine, also must install additional green infrastructure — living roofs, rain gardens and pervious pavement — to soak up stormwater.

The Chicago River in downtown Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Sea Grant)

Chicago, like many Great Lakes cities, captures stormwater and sanitary sewage in combined pipes. Storms often overwhelm Chicago’s combined sewer system, which results in discharges of untreated sewage into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.

“These much needed upgrades to Chicago’s sewer infrastructure will reduce combined sewage overflows and the public’s exposure to harmful pathogens,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. “The use of innovative green infrastructure in the city’s urban core will reduce runoff and flooding, and improve the quality of the environment where people live.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the settlement “another important step toward cleaning up the river and restoring it as a recreational frontier for Chicago families.” Read the complete settlement here.

Areas in pink show which segments of the Chicago River have the worst water quality.

Earlier this year, the EPA set new water quality standards that require the Chicago River to be clean enough for swimming. The Chicago Tribune had a fine summary of those regulations.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District treats stormwater and sewage in Chicago and 51 surrounding communities.

Earlier this year, the conservation group American Rivers declared the Chicago River America’s 4th most endangered river, due to chronic bacterial pollution. American Rivers said metropolitan Chicago discharges 1.2 billion gallons of non-disinfected sewage into the Chicago River each day.

“This wastewater comprises 70 percent of the water in the Chicago River, and threatens the health of area residents,” the group said in a May 2011 report. “Nearly all other U.S. cities disinfect their wastewater before dumping it into their rivers.”

Cleaning up the river would not only improve conditions for aquatic life and people who use the river; it would also strengthen Chicago’s economy.

According to American Rivers, a study by the Illinois Attorney General’s office concluded that restoring water quality in the Chicago River could provide a $1 billion boost to the economy — from recreation alone — in the next 20 years.

Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley wanted to make Chicago the greenest city in America and there has been considerable progress on that front. The city has an outstanding mass transit system, a thriving downtown, a vast network of green spaces that includes the spectacular Millennium Park, and has invested in a considerable number of green infrastructure projects in recent years.

The Chicago River, on the other hand, has long been the Windy City’s dirty little secret.

Transforming the river from an open sewer to a thriving urban river that is safe for fishing, boating and swimming should do wonders for Chicago and strengthen its claim of being a green city.

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