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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Chicago Sun-Times: The recent announcement of the Chicago River Swim, an open-water event to be hosted by A Long Swim in September, is very good news and the direct result of more than 40 years' effort to clean up the river system to make it safe for people and wildlife.

It is also just one more reason why Chicago's little-known National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, issued April 1 by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, is important.

Kayakers on the Chicago River
Kayakers maneuver to avoid Chicago River tour boats. New rules will keep the river and other waterways cleaner. Sun-Times file

Required by the Clean Water Act, the NPDES permit governs Chicago's 184 sewer outfalls, which can discharge sewage and other pollutants into the Chicago-Calumet River System and the Des Plaines River when the sewers are overwhelmed by heavy rain. The purpose of the NPDES program is to eliminate these pollution discharges, and this powerful new permit will help Chicago achieve that goal. The Friends of the Chicago River and the city collaborated for years to get the permit right.

Chicago owns the most outfalls in the river system, and controlling what comes out of them is essential to reach our shared vision for a fishable/swimmable river that is accessible to everyone. According to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which monitors water quality, the ambient water quality in the river system is usually clean enough for swimming as a result of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, which drastically reduced the number of combined sewer overflows, and sewage effluent disinfection, which removes bacteria and pathogens. Eliminating remaining sewer pipe discharges and managing stormwater runoff, which carries pollutants, are the critical next steps.

Paramount to the planning process was the engagement of representatives from 26 frontline community groups, nonprofits, city departments and relevant government agencies, including Chicago's Sustainability Office and Department of Water Management, Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, the North River Commission, PERRO (Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization) and the Sierra Club of Illinois, which participated in eight community forums to identify their priorities and inform the new permit.

The forums took place from March through July 2021, and throughout, community groups expressed the desire to be included in river planning and a priority be placed on health, safety, access, equity and utilizing careful riverfront planning to reduce the risk of environmental gentrification. The Friends of the Chicago River captured the comments in Investing Together, our community report.

Among the permit highlights are:

  • Advanced monitoring requirements by the Chicago Department of Water Management for the 11 most active outfalls.
  • The designation of 10 of those active outfalls as "sensitive areas" due to their proximity to environmental justice communities and recreational facilities, such as public boat launches, park district sites and forest preserve district properties.
  • An update of Chicago's Green Stormwater Infrastructure Strategy, which must include measurable goals to reduce stormwater runoff, and the addition of multi-beneficial green infrastructure on city-owned properties.
  • Participation in regional watershed planning efforts such as the Greater Chicago Watershed Alliance to expand the use of nature-based stormwater solutions and standardize maintenance practices for city-owned projects.
  • The purchase and deployment of litter-control technology such as skimmer boats and trash-traps to reduce litter in the river.
  • Working with stakeholders on a notification system for all publicly owned access points in Chicago for when there are sewer overflows in the river. Privately held access points will have the ability to opt in.

This permit is a major development in the complex and decades-long process to improve water quality in the entire 156-mile river system, with positive impacts for people and wildlife in Chicago and downstream.

Yet as exciting as this esoteric new permit might be for us after all this time, what is most important is what it means for everybody else - especially the 500 swimmers in September for whom we will cheer. Like the Paris Olympians swimming in the Seine, they are going to make a big splash.

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Established in 1889, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is an award-winning, special purpose government agency responsible for wastewater treatment and stormwater management in Cook County, Illinois.


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