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Chicago River: President's Hometown Joke Underscores Choice Between Dead Zone or Clean Waterway Future

Henry Henderson

Posted January 13, 2012 in Curbing Pollution

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Casting towards the skyline by realboring via Flickr

I was truly pleased to see President Obama visit with the beleaguered staff at the Environmental Protection Agency this week. Given the withering and unfair attacks launched at the EPA from some in Congress who would undo the protections that Americans have come to rely on for their health and safety, it was good to see the President standing with the people charged with safeguarding our air, water and health.

There was one section of the speech that caught my eye. Said the President:

"In my hometown, the Chicago River -- you probably could not find anything alive in there -- (laughter) -- four decades ago.  Now it’s thriving..."

In Chicago, NRDC has been engaged in a bunch of fights on behalf of our hometown waterways; among the most prominent is the effort to get action on the rapidly encroaching menace of invasive Asian carp making their way into the Chicago River and Great Lakes.

It is my fervent hope that the folks in various federal agencies tasked with keeping the invasive fish out of the River and Great Lakes are paying attention to what the President said about a thriving, clean river in Chicago.

It is important that they do…after all, it was just a few weeks ago that the Army Corps of Engineers released a laundry list of “tools” that could be employed in the war on Asian Carp that included the “creation” of a “dead zone” in the Chicago River system.

Think about that for a second.

After decades of effort to rejuvenate the waterways that were once merely a convenient cesspool for the deposition of offal and carcasses from the millions of livestock that met their end in Chicago’s famed Union Stock Yards, the idea of intentionally developing a section of the river that could not support any life is thoroughly shocking. But the Corps is hardly the only group to make such a galling suggestion. 

I wonder if anyone would have the guts to advance such claptrap related to the nation’s other waterways. I fear that the Chicago River’s gruesome reputation leaves it open to incredible misuse simply because we do not expect better. But while there is still much to do to right the river, the President is correct to note that the green waters cutting through our fair city have come a long, long, long way.

Back in 1992, while I was Commissioner of the Environment for the City, a notable disaster forced many to change their minds about the river. When a hole was accidentally blown into the one of the many tunnel systems that lay under the Loop and surrounding business districts, the river flooded the entire downtown. My staff and I went into basement after basement to sample what we assumed would be toxic chemical laden remnants of the deluge. Instead of dangerous waste, we found schools of flopping fish in the lower levels of most buildings. Indeed, the river has been supporting growing and diverse fish populations for over 25 years.

The Clean Water Act holds out the goal of American waters that are both “fishable and swimmable.” In the Windy City, we have done a great job of moving closer to that fishable goal. And recent changes, like the recent MWRD disinfection decision, leave me hopeful about swimmable too. However, all of that can be quickly undone should we choose to look the other way as short-sighted solutions to our growing invasive species problem move us backwards or the pro-pollution folks in Congress swinging at the EPA get their way in rolling back the Clean Water Act. Just look back at old descriptions of the Chicago River to see what is at stake.

 

Casting Towards the Skyline image of Canal Origins Park by reallyboring via Flickr

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Comments

George J.Jan 14 2012 01:31 PM

Your article is somewhat misleading.

The "dead zone" is just one of many options listed by the Army Corps and the location was not specified. That option would most likely be considered in the Sanitary & Ship Canal down stream of where it meets the Cal-Sag Canal, not in any branches of the Chicago River. Also there are many options for creating a dead zone and not all of them would involve injecting toxic chemicals into the water. Some would merely deter fish from entering the zone without necessarily killing them.

The decision to start disinfecting treated sewage is both promising and disappointing. Promising in that it will improve the water quality in parts of Chicago's waterways and disappointing because it does not include the Stickney treatment plant which is the largest sewage treatment plant in the world. That leaves a large portion of Chicago's waterways that are heavily used by recreational boaters still exposed to treatment discharges that have not been properly disinfected.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District should embrace the Clean Water Act and EPA standards at all of its facilities to assure all of Chicago's waterways attain safe water quality standards.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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