The Chicago River, that bridged-over ditch, rarely gets much attention even in its hometown. But it got a nice write-up in this week’s Economist, which reports that the city is so serious about cleaning up the river for recreation that it’s convinced the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to finally treat the sewage it dumps there.
Chicago will finally lose the unwelcome distinction of being the only big American city that fails to disinfect its sewage. The MWRD, one of the world’s largest wastewater treatment agencies, with a budget of around $1 billion, has agreed to clean up. Disinfection technology could cost it $250m to build and run over 20 years.
For many this is a turning-point for a river that has been gradually clawing its way back to life. The timing is no accident. The river is increasingly seen as an environmental and economic resource. A decade of investment has set the scene for demands to improve water quality. Downtown, a new riverside walk brings tourists and allows office workers to stretch their legs. New waterfront restaurants, and developments such as Chicago’s Trump Tower, have been popping up. David Spielfogel, head of policy for the mayor, says that the city already has a spectacular front yard for tourism and recreation in the form of Lake Michigan, and now wants the same thing along its river.
For decades, Great Lakes cities dedicated their waterfronts to industry. Now that industry has abandoned the region, cities such as Buffalo and Toronto are trying to reclaim their beaches for recreation. Chicago’s lakefront, kept open for recreation by the Burnham Plan, has always been the regional model. But as the Economist points out, for all the respect we’ve given Lake Michigan, we’ve treated the Chicago River with the same amount of abuse.
The article also brings up the prospect of reversing the river’s reversal, which would prevent the spread of invasive species from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system. But before that happens, the water quality has to improve, so the river isn’t feeding sewage into the lake.
The Economist quotes a study claiming that cleaning up the river will “eventually give a $1 billion boost to the economy.” It’s time to start treating the Chicago River like a real river. Let’s show our respect, first of all, by not dyeing it green next St. Patrick’s Day.
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