While there is no denying that the Chicago River has dramatically cleaned up its act since the city’s industrial heyday, the river’s high levels of phosphorous fueling algae blooms have resulted in lowered water quality both here in Chicago and in downstream waters as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to a recent legal settlement between environmental groups and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), phosphorous discharges from the river’s main water treatment plants are on track for a major reduction.
In a move being touted as a significant victory by environmental advocates, the MWRD officials have agreed to install more stringent pollution controls at its three largest wastewater treatment facilities. The settlement will also see new efforts to better monitor phosphorus and phosphorus-related issues in problematic places along the Chicago and Lower Des Plaines rivers.
Theses efforts could eventually curb phosphorous levels by 90%, bringing the Chicago River in-line with limits commonly enforced elsewhere in the country. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, the changes are expected to be fully implemented by the year 2030.
“This settlement is the natural next step in advancing the health of the Chicago River system and essential to the impacted water bodies downstream,” said Margaret Frisbie, Executive Director, Friends of the Chicago River via statement released by the NRDC.
“In recent years the river’s physical condition has improved dramatically and it is time to reduce phosphorus to better protect our burgeoning fish populations and other aquatic life,” continued Frisbie. “At the same we make the river system more appealing to people who live, work, and recreate in, on, and along it.”
The latest pledge from the MWRD comes roughly a year after the group was pressured into adopting long-awaited new equipment to reduce and better treat the bacteria-laden raw sewage discharges coming from its plants. In some areas, it was estimated that the discharge of untreated water accounted for as much as 70% of the Chicago River's total flow.
As Mayor Emmanuel continues to champion the river as the city’s next great recreational asset and a catalyst for new development, the ongoing issue of water quality all too often requires environmentalist litigation or federal intervention to be properly addressed. While progress is certainly being made, there is still much work to be done before the river is close to being considered safe enough for recreational swimming—a long-term goal held by both river advocates as well as City Hall.