System out of murky waters

By Vanessa Morton

Cleanup is underway for parts of the Chicago River and connected waterways after years of research and recommendations from federal officials and environmental agencies.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Nov. 6 its decision to approve new water standards for five segments of the Chicago and Calumet rivers. They were created after the EPA sent a letter to the state in May, demanding that parts of the rivers needed to be clean enough to protect the well-being of people using the waterways for recreational use, such as kayaking and swimming.

“We are pleased that Illinois acted quickly to adopt these new standards, which will help to further the transformation of the Chicago River system from sewage canal to valuable recreational and economic assets,” said Susan Hedman, EPA Regional Administrator, in a written statement.

The five affected segments include the North and South branches of the Chicago River, the North Shore Channel, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River.

According to Linda Holst, EPA’s water quality branch chief, the new standards will require the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, an agency that handles Cook County’s sewage and storm water, to resume disinfecting sewage that is discharged into the waterway system from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants, which they stopped doing in the mid-1980s.

Between 70 and 100 percent of the river water comes from sewage treatment plants operated by MWRD, according to the agency’s report. However, the result of the agency not being required to disinfect levels of bacteria—properly known as sewage effluent disinfection—has caused the water to become increasingly unsafe for human contact.

Though Holst said it has been decades since laws were put into effect to set any kind of standards, she said with water quality improving during the years and an increase of people using the rivers for recreational use, there needed to be change to protect people’s safety.

“It had been quite a while since the state had actually looked to see if conditions had changed, such that [EPA questioned] whether there should be different uses and different criteria in place, [and if] water quality improved,” Holst said. “And it had, so in 2000, the state realized that it needed to figure out what kind of changes needed to be [done] in making things more protective.”

Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the Friends of the Chicago River, an organization dedicated to protecting the river, said the new standards were long overdue and did not address leisure uses before now.

“Effectively, the old standards were [those] that didn’t accommodate people and were set by the fact that they didn’t think anybody was recreating on the river,” Frisbie said. “But now the new standards reflect the people [who] are actually interactive in and on the water. So what [they are] saying is, ‘You have to clean up this river well enough that people recreating are not going to be exposed to this bacteria.’”

However, MWRD’s administrative services manager, Eileen McElligott, said when the water is returned to the river after the waste water treatment process, the reclaimed water has more than 95 percent of the impurities removed.

“So the effluent from our plant is often cleaner than the water, rivers and canals,” McElligott said.

The EPA had repeatedly recommended that the state upgrade the standards for the waterway system, Holst said. Nonetheless, the MWRD opposed the proposed standards until June 2011. The agency would not comment on the matter at this time.

Frisbie said the MWRD recruited experts and did studies that worked against improving the water quality standards, but said she didn’t know why they were against it. Still, she said she would rather focus on moving forward and is thrilled that the agency is now supportive of the new standards.

“I know what they did as opposed to why they did it, but at this point, they are actually working [on] figuring out when they can implement disinfection technologies, and we’re thrilled,” Frisbie said. “But I think a real game changer for some of the commissioners was when they started to understand how the river was being used, [and] they knew that meant they needed to clean up the sewage effluent coming out of those plants.”

According to the EPA’s annual sewer rate report, a small property tax increase is most likely to occur, but will still be lower than in many communities.

McElligott said the district is committed to improving the water quality in the Chicago area waterways, adding that the agency’s engineering department is currently in the process of developing a plan to construct the disinfection facilities. She said the new water quality standards will have certain criteria that will define and set limits on the properties of water, but state regulators and the pollution control board will determine the criteria.

“[The EPA] wants these areas to be designated for recreational use, but we don’t know exactly what the final measures are because they haven’t been decided,” McElligott said. “[But] the EPA and state have set the bar. It’s consistent with the district’s mission, and we’re working to move forward.”