Since the Chicago Riverwalk opened in June 2015 at the northern end of Chicago’s Loop business district, the area has been bustling with business – everything from popular restaurants and bike rentals to board games and miniature parks.
But business doesn’t stop on land. There has been a boom in the kayaking industry on that stretch of the Chicago River, with seven major kayaking companies springing up over the last few years.
Kayaking season is relatively short in Chicago: it runs from June to October. So for kayak operators to be profitable, they say it’s essential that kayaks are gliding down the river most days of the week.
The increase in water-based business correlates well with improvements in the safety and cleanliness of the Chicago River in recent years.
In March 2016, two of the wastewater treatment plants operated by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District revamped their sewage handling techniques to remove more bacteria and other hazardous elements from the water before releasing it into the Chicago River. The O’Brien facility located in Skokie acquired ultraviolet technology that disinfects the effluent leaving the plant. The Calumet facility updated its chlorinating procedures to include a necessary de-chlorination step in the process. Without these steps, higher levels of contaminants harmful to both human and aquatic life would be released into the Chicago River.
Those efforts appear to be working. Spring 2016 tests by MWRD demonstrated that during normal flow conditions fecal coliform levels are well within the state standard, dropping from previous highs of 7-13 times the standard.
However, the City of Chicago has a combined sewer overflow (CSO) system, which means untreated sewage is sometimes released into the Chicago River during heavy rainstorms. These CSOs occur about 100 times a year and lead to soaring E.coli levels in the water, making recreational river use unsafe for a recommended 24 hours, according to the non-profit Friends of the Chicago River.
John Quail, director of watershed planning at Friends of the Chicago River, isn’t worried about anyone paddling in the Chicago River on most days.
“From an E.coli perspective, when there isn’t a CSO, the Chicago River is safe for general water use, including getting your head in the water – the whole nine yards,” he says.
But Quail warns that too often people recreating on the Chicago River are unaware when a CSO has occurred. Since kayak rental operators aren’t legally required to warn customers when these CSO events occur, clusters of colorful kayaks can be seen navigating the Chicago River in spite of the dangers just beneath them. On a typical summer day, there can be as many as 25 kayaks gliding by people who are strolling along the Chicago Riverwalk.
Susan Kline, a Chicago native eager to embark on an Urban Kayaks tour of the river, wouldn’t let news about the river’s CSO potential get in her way of venturing out.
“I’ve been biking in Chicago for 30 years and have always been interested in the river, but this is my first time kayaking, and I’m very excited,” Kline says. “I’ve never heard of a CSO before, but it wouldn’t make a difference in my decision to kayak even if I had.”
Most Kayakers share this sentiment, assuming that when Urban Kayaks is open, it’s safe to kayak. But according to Katie Page, office manager and organizer of Urban Kayaks, despite unsafe CSO conditions, their company continues to operate.
“We get calls sometimes when beaches are shut down for the day [because of CSOs],” Page says. “People call to see if we are still open, and we are, because we’re not told to be closed.”
ELPC went to investigate the situation and asked people about their comfort level with kayaking or general recreational use of the river.