Will the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District finally be forced to clean up the Chicago River? According to a recent Chicago Tribune article, a meeting earlier this month by the Illinois Pollution Control Board changed the official designation of areas of the river to include recreational use.
Previously the MWRD has refused to disinfect wastewater discharged from its sewage treatment plants under the Catch-22 assumption that if the Chicago River was too polluted for recreational boating, it was not necessary to fully treat the discharged water since no recreational users were being affected.
An infographic published with the article charts the astoundingly high levels of colony-forming units (CFUs) of fecal-coliform bacteria in the North Branch of the Chicago and the Little Calumet Rivers downstream from two of the three metro sewage plants (the channel next to the largest Stickney sewage plant is an industrial shipping channel not generally used for recreational boating).
Apologists at the MWRD point out that disinfecting the wastewater discharged into the river will not fully clean the waterway, because it is still subject to Combined Sewage Outflows (CSOs) during heavy rainstorms, when rainwater overloads the underground pipes and combined sewage and stormwater must be released into the river so that it does not back up into nearby basements. The engineering solution to that problem, the Deep Tunnel which is supposed to capture overload water, is still years away from completion, even 38 years after the project started.