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What'u smokin' Willis?
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Waterways murky, but signs blunt
Chicago River to get sewage warnings

By Michael Hawthorne
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 25, 2005

While Mayor Richard M. Daley and other civic leaders promote the Chicago River as the city's second lakefront, signs are going up that provide a stark reminder of the waterway's sewage-choked history.

The river is the cleanest it has been in decades. But people riding the popular downtown tour boats or canoeing the concrete-lined channels soon will see warnings above each of the 241 pipes that pour untreated human and industrial waste into the river's murky flow after heavy rains.

Posting the signs marks the beginning of a campaign to draw attention to Chicago's chronic sewage overflows, which are hampering efforts to make the river clean enough for the surging number of people drawn to it for recreation. More than 10 billion gallons of bacteria-laden wastewater and storm runoff spilled from the pipes last year alone.

"The way the river is used is changing, and we need to recognize that," said Laurene von Klan, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, a group that has pushed for years to change the popular view of the waterway as little more than an open sewer.

City officials and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the regional sewage treatment agency, are embarking on the public awareness campaign somewhat reluctantly.

When state environmental regulators renewed pollution permits for the city and district three years ago, they required public notification of sewage overflows. It took until now for officials to agree how the signs should be worded, with some arguing that any warnings would scare people away from the river.

They needed a written reminder of their legal obligations before promising to post the signs by Memorial Day.

At 37 locations along the river, the district will caution that overflow pipes "may discharge sewage contaminated rainwater during and after rainfall." The warnings will be more explicit at 204 other locations maintained by the city, noting the discharges "may contain bacteria that can cause illness."

More than a dozen signs will be going up along the signature stretch of the river between Lake Michigan and Wolf Point, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency map.

"Some people didn't like the image this would create for tourists," said Janet Pellegrini, an EPA official who oversees the river.

The federal Clean Water Act, enacted in the early 1970s, required improvements to make waterways fishable and swimmable. But the rules always have been different for the Chicago River.

Once a sluggish prairie stream that drew American Indians, fur traders, explorers and armies to its banks, the river was dredged and straightened in the early 1900s to keep the burgeoning city's waste from contaminating its water supply, Lake Michigan.

For decades, the river was treated as a place where fish and wildlife weren't welcome, let alone humans. Fences went up along the banks. Skyscrapers were built to shut the fetid river off from the city.

One branch came to be known as Bubbly Creek, for the foul-smelling gases that burbled to the surface from offal and carcasses dumped by the city's livestock slaughterhouses.

The overflow pipes are part of the aging network of sewers built in the mid-1800s. At the time, sanitary and storm sewers typically were combined into one system. Newer cities built systems that separate the two.

Efforts to warn people about the overflows come as federal, state and local officials are taking a close look at the river for the first time in three decades. They are debating whether there should be more rigorous standards for wastewater pumped into canals and channels dug to reverse the river's current away from the lake.

About 60 percent of the river's flow is treated sewage that isn't disinfected to remove disease-causing bacteria. Most other cities douse wastewater with chlorine after treating it by removing solids and pumping what is left through tanks filled with microbes that kill pathogens.

The difference becomes apparent when comparing monitoring data from systems that disinfect sewage with ones that don't. Disinfected wastewater pumped into the Fox River by Elgin contains levels of fecal coliform bacteria well within state standards intended to make water safe for swimming, according to the U.S. EPA. Wastewater coming out of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's North Side treatment plant contains bacteria levels more than 650 times higher than the state standard.

The Illinois EPA has proposed that the district's treatment plants do more to eliminate bacteria and other pathogens in the river. But regional officials argue that spending money to make the water cleaner would sap money from the Deep Tunnel project, a network of tunnels and reservoirs that captures storm runoff and has dramatically reduced the number and severity of sewage overflows.

Each year, the Deep Tunnel diverts about 85 percent of storm surges away from the river and stores the runoff until it can be treated. But it will take at least a decade and more than $700 million to complete the public works project. Even then, there is no guarantee the overflows will be completely eliminated.
 

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What'u smokin' Willis?
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650 times federal health standards (which itself is a relatively low bar) is pretty bad. If the River is going to be the focal point of 21st century Chicago, these pipes need more than signs. They need to be capped. Dumping bacterialogically contaminated sewage is simply unacceptable in this day and age.

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Portland has these signs up. It is right to warn people that unsafe conditions could occur after rain. Of course Portland is taking care of it by seperating storm sewage from raw sewage pipes. Perhaps Chicago should start thinking about this? There will be more and more pressure on the city to change this as more and more highprice homes go up on the river.
 

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STR said:
650 times federal health standards (which itself is a relatively low bar) is pretty bad. If the River is going to be the focal point of 21st century Chicago, these pipes need more than signs. They need to be capped. Dumping bacterialogically contaminated sewage is simply unacceptable in this day and age.

Thoughts?
Funny thing is most cities do it. San Diego and LA I believe have pipes that dump things out in open water and our neighbor to the north wants to dump more raw sewage into our drinking water!!! And more than likely the Bush administration will allow them too....which means more closures for our beaches.
 

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My first thoughts: Thats really nasty.

Upon thinking about it, I'm glad that the signs will bring attention towards these pipes. I think Chicago has really improved their systems though. The great tunnel project is a really good example of the city's effort to do something about this. The project has saved billions of gallons of untreated water from going into the lake and river. I do think that some funds should be diverted though to drastically improve the northside treatment plant. 650 times above the minimum EPA level is ridiculous. The tunnel project just stores water until it can be treated, but that is not very helpful if it will just get sent to a treatment plant that doesn't do a whole lot.

At least something is being done though, this is a start.
 

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What'u smokin' Willis?
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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Chicago3rd said:
Of course Portland is taking care of it by seperating storm sewage from raw sewage pipes. Perhaps Chicago should start thinking about this? There will be more and more pressure on the city to change this as more and more highprice homes go up on the river.
This is exactly what needs to be done. I've known quite a few professional individuals in the urban planning field, and almost all of them consider mixed sewage/stormwater pretty much the worst thing you can do for a city's water system. Signs are a stopgap. The sewage system needs to be fixed ASAP.
 
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