Reclaiming Chicago’s Water: Officials plan water treatment plant improvements

By Chris Loeber

Built around a river that was once solely a means of industrial development and transportation, the city is taking steps to improve the quality of its waterways as officials hope to make them attractive for recreational use.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago plans to install new technology at two local water treatment plants that will lead to cleaner waterways, including the Chicago River, by 2015.

The North Side Water Reclamation Plant, 3500 Howard St., Skokie Ill., and the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant, 400 E. 130th St., will be upgraded to disinfect wastewater processed by the facilities and discharged into the Chicago Waterway System.

“It’s a very high quality, clean effluent that is discharged from the wastewater facilities,” said David St. Pierre, executive director of the district. “The waterways have improved significantly over the last 20 years, so I think [the plants have] had a very positive impact on the Chicago Waterway System, but the next step that we’re taking is disinfection.”

The Calumet plant will implement a purification process that adds toxic chlorine and then removes it from the water before it is discharged, and the North Side plant will use a method that exposes water to ultraviolet radiation.

Disinfection will provide cleaner water for the Chicago Waterway System, but the reclamation district and government officials have been working to improve the water quality for Chicago residents and aquatic life for decades, St. Pierre said.

While the treatment plants meet water quality standards put in place by Illinois in accordance with the Clean Water Act of 1972 to regulate pollution in U.S. waterways, new proposals from the Environmental Protection Agency call for Chicago waterways that are clean enough for recreational use, as was reported by The Chronicle Dec. 14, 2011.

Local, state and federal government officials are collaborating to make the Chicago River meet that standard.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with Gov. Pat Quinn and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on April 12 to announce the allocation of $10 million in state funding to support the improvements at the two Chicago treatment plants. Emanuel said he plans to promote the Chicago River as “the city’s next recreational frontier.”

Including design, engineering and construction expenses, the upgrades will cost approximately $130 million, St. Pierre said. The district will cover $120 million of the costs.

Disinfection measures in conjunction with Chicago’s Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, an initiative to use underground tunnels to channel sewer overflow and storm water into large reservoirs, will help mitigate the amount of bacteria in the city’s waterways, said Peter Cassell, spokesman for the EPA.

“Over the last several decades, we have been working with the city to improve the water quality and increase recreation around the Chicago River,” he said. “Disinfection at these two particular plants is a step in that path forward.”

Approximately 1.2 billion gallons of treated wastewater are discharged into Chicago waterways each day, half of which comes from the Calumet and North Side Water Reclamation Plants, according to Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River.

Disinfecting the treated wastewater will not only lead to a cleaner Chicago River, but it will also help to establish the river as a recreational destination, Frisbie said.

“It will bring a host of benefits,” she said. “It provides a new community resource for natural open space and places for recreation where they didn’t exist before.”