SKOKIE -- Dignitaries broke ground recently on a new disinfection facility at a water reclamation plant that will help clean Chicago area waterways for future recreational use. The Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) has been active in partnering with Friends of the Chicago River in cleaning up the city’s water ways along with Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which is also constructing the Thornton Reservoir to dramatically improve water quality in the Calumet region.
The ELPC, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Chicago River, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club, has for years advocated for the cleaning of the Chicago River and worked to increase public awareness that ultimately tipped the scales and resulted in the MWRD’s measures.
ELPC Staff Attorney Jessica Dexter, who has urged for the disinfection of the waterways, said: “It’s been a long time coming, but this is a great time for people who kayak, canoe and fish in the Chicago River. When these disinfection facilities are complete, the river will no longer have a base-load of germs that can make people sick.”
Friends of the Chicago River Executive Director Margaret Frisbie called the project “monumental” and looks forward to the day when people are able to go into the water again and not get sick from the pollutants floating around in it.
“I won’t be only promoting kayaking in the Chicago River, but also swimming,” Frisbie said. “You can imagine what a day like this means to us. Even three or four years ago, we didn’t know whether this would ever happen or it would be possible.”
The MWRD created a disinfection task force in 2011 with the aim of determining the best way to upgrade the area’s water quality.
That technology includes chlorination-de-chlorination for Calumet and ultraviolet radiation with low pressure high output lamps for the Thomas J. O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant at Howard Street and McCormick Boulevard in Skokie. The estimated cost of the project at both plants is just over $109 million – as much as 50 percent less than originally thought. A total of $240 million was reserved in the MWRD budget for construction, but it’s not likely to cost nearly that much. The project at both venues is expected to create 750 new construction and support jobs.
The disinfection facilities are slated for completion by the end of 2015 in time for the 2016 recreational season.
Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the MWRD $10 million in 2012 toward the project. Quinn’s Clean Water Initiative also aided in securing low-interest loans for the project.
In a written statement, Quinn said: “The Chicago River is one of the most important waterways in Illinois and it should be protected. This project will not only create hundreds of jobs now, it will improve the quality of life of everyone who enjoys the river and help attract tourism that will boost Illinois’ economy.”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region V Administrator Dr. Susan Hedman, a former ELPC staff member, said Monday she had been waiting for this day for 20 years. She moved to Chicago in 1993 and joined the Board of the Friends of the Chicago River. Checking out the river for the first time, she took her kayak for a ride starting at the North Branch of the river.
“I was amazed at the natural beauty,” she said. “Hard to believe I was in a major city. As I paddled downstream and paddled through the main branch of the river, I felt like I was going through a canyon. It was the first time I ever kayaked on an urban river.”
What Hedman did not know then was that she was using an effluent or contaminated waterway in a city where waste water was not disinfected. “They needed to be upgraded to protect recreational users of the river,” she said.