How Chicago River Wastewater Will Be Treated

More than half a year after the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District voted to disinfect wastewater, we are now hearing details on specific techniques that will be used.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District said installing equipment to kill the germs in partially treated sewage will cost $139 million, about 7 times less than the $1 billion that top district officials once said it would require and half as much as they later argued it would take to disinfect the wastewater.

Contractors are set to complete the project by 2015, district officials said, much faster than the decade-long schedule outlined in records submitted last year to state regulators. They also said the equipment should cost about $5 million a year to operate, less than half of previous estimates.

David St. Pierre, the district’s new executive director, told elected commissioners that spreading the construction costs over three years will enable them to overhaul two massive treatment plants within their routine budget for bricks-and-mortar projects. The work won’t cut into money set aside to complete the Deep Tunnel, the district’s long-delayed pollution- and flood-control project, St. Pierre said….

To improve water quality, the district plans to zap wastewater at its Calumet plant with chlorine — technology widely used elsewhere, including at two of the district’s smaller treatment plants. The Calumet plant already has a large tank to hold the wastewater long enough for chlorine to kill germs; the toxic chemical will be stripped out before wastewater is pumped into the Little Calumet River.

The North Side plant will rely on ultraviolet radiation, which is more expensive technology but saves the district the cost of installing a holding tank, St. Pierre said.

The reversal of the Chicago River more than a century ago led to a flurry of litigation that remains relevant today.  Professor Mike Bryson will cover the consequences of the engineering feat when he teaches SUST 220 Water this fall as an online course with selected field trips.  If you are interested in enrolling, find out more by visiting our Sustainability Studies website, calling 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or emailing

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