It’s a new day for the Chicago River. In recent years, Chicago has been unique because of what it doesn’t do: fully disinfect its wastewater before pumping it into public waterways. “In virtually every other city in the nation,” Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne wrote last year, “it would be illegal to pump out partially treated sewage teeming with the amount of disease-causing bacteria that churns endlessly into the Chicago River.”
That, however, is about to change. Today, under pressure from the EPA, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District voted to begin disinfection of the Chicago River.
After spending more than $13 million fighting efforts to clean up the Chicago River, the agency that handles Cook County’s sewage and stormwater today officially dropped its opposition.
On an 8-1 vote, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s elected board endorsed a new policy that backs more stringent water quality standards. Most of the water in the Chicago River and its connected waterways comes from sewage treatment plants operated by the district, which for years has skipped an important germ-killing step adopted by most other U.S. cities.
The vote largely was symbolic. A May 11 letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a June 2 order from the Illinois Pollution Control Board demanded changes that will make stretches of the Chicago River, Cal-Sag Channel and Little Calumet River safer for recreation.
But three commissioners who campaigned for a cleaner river — Michael Alvarez, Debra Shore and Mariyana Spyropoulos — pushed for an official policy to stanch efforts by the district’s staff to block or delay the initiative. They were joined by five others: Frank Avila, Patricia Horton, Barbara McGowan, Kathleen Therese Meany and Cynthia Santos.
Professor Mike Bryson has made the river a central aspect of his teaching at Roosevelt University, devoting assignments, field trips, and entire courses to the role of water in the Chicago area. This fall, he offers SUST 220 Water as a hybrid course meeting several Saturdays in Schaumburg and online, with select field trips. You can read more about this course at Professor Bryson’s blog. If you are interested in taking this or any of our courses this fall, please contact your RU academic advisor for registration details. If you are not currently a Roosevelt University student, we encourage you to investigate our degree options, and our course listings. For more information, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email applyRU@roosevelt.edu.