In recent years, the Chicago River has become safer and healthier – for all living creatures. But it still has a long way to go. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to a cleaner river is us – the millions of humans who live along the river’s vast watershed. When it rains, everything on the ground – including road salt, fertilizers, leaked motor oil, and trash – flows directly into the river. When it rains heavily, these pollutants are joined by all of the raw sewage and chemicals in our backed-up sewers. Meanwhile, much of our built environment – our roads, roofs, and sidewalks – prevents a lot of clean rainwater from replenishing the watershed as nature intended. The good news is that with some different choices, we can lessen our negative impact and help clean the Chicago River. Below are just a few ways to do that.
1. Reduce land pollution.
The Chicago area is teeming with asphalt, concrete, and other manmade structures. It takes only a drizzle for all of the grime and pollution that’s built up on our streets, sidewalks, and lawns to flow into storm drains.
In some neighborhoods, these drains empty directly into the river. In others, the dirty water enters the sewer system. From there, one of two things happens. On a good day, when there isn’t too much rainfall, the toxic stew travels to water treatment plants, where it is filtered, and, in some cases, disinfected, before being released into the river. During heavy rains, however, Chicago’s old sewer system can’t handle the load. The sewers back up, releasing untreated water directly into the river (and in severe cases, Lake Michigan and area basements).
With that in mind, here are a few things we all can do to make that runoff a little less harmful:
- When it snows, go easy on the road salt. Shovel as soon as you can to use as little salt as possible. Or better yet, try replacing salt with sand or other, less toxic alternatives, which are increasingly available at your local hardware store.
- Practice green landscaping. Whether through the soil or the sewers, much of the fertilizer and pesticides that we use on our lawns and gardens eventually reaches the river, where it becomes toxic to aquatic wildlife and humans. Nontoxic alternatives, including phosphorous-free fertilizers (with a “0” on the label) and natural, homemade concoctions, are much gentler on the river ecosystem.
- Ride a bike or take public transportation. Reducing car traffic means reducing the amount of oil and other chemicals on our roads.
- Don’t be a litterbug. Many of the straws, soda bottles, and potato chip bags Chicagoans toss on the ground wind up in the river, whether through drain pipes or when sewers overflow. So find a better home for them.
2. Help rainwater soak gently into the ground – and stay out of the sewer.
Remember the water cycle we all drew pictures of in our third-grade science class? All of the impermeable surfaces (asphalt, concrete, etc.) in our urban environments act like little dams in that cycle, impeding water’s journey and stopping it from filtering down through the soil and replenishing the watershed. Instead, it either contributes to flooding or enters the sewer system, neither of which is good for the river. To help that rainwater realize its best and highest purpose:
- Plant trees and native plants. Native plants are particularly well suited for local soil and weather conditions. They not only help water filter into the ground more quickly and effectively, they also require less maintenance – a win-win situation. If you want to take it to the next level, consider installing a rain garden or planting a tree.
- Disconnect your downspout. The City of Chicago estimates that approximately 29,000 gallons of water will drain from a typical Chicago roof in a year. Rather than letting all of that water overcrowd the sewer, redirect it to green space or a rain barrel. Several local municipalities have programs to help encourage the use of rain barrels. Cook County residents can obtain them through the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District for less than $50. The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Rain Ready program has a short video to help you install it yourself.
- Don’t pave your yard. Or if you do, install porous asphalt or permeable grid pavers. The watershed needs all of the green space it can get.
- Assess your home’s “rain readiness.” If you own your home, do a free online Rain Ready assessment to determine what else you can do to prevent storm water runoff and flooding in your little corner of the world.
- Install or advocate for more natural areas and permeable pavements – at home, in parks, playgrounds, and in new developments. Not only do they help replenish the watershed, they reduce erosion and flooding.
3. Watch what you put down the drain – both inside and outside your home.
The Chicago River is home to an increasing diversity of wildlife, including green frogs, painted turtles, beavers, and more than 70 species of fish. But the pharmaceuticals, paint, household cleaners, and other chemicals we dump down our drains often don’t get filtered out during the water treatment process. “People tend to think that if they throw something down the drain that the wastewater treatment plants will handle it, and that’s not the case,” explains Allen LaPointe, vice president of environmental quality at Shedd Aquarium. “They just end up going through the process and back in the river.” With that in mind:
- Go green when you clean. Many household cleaners aren’t good for people or the environment. Try using phosphate-free detergents, castile soap, or a number of other homemade, natural alternativesthat are gentler on your body, your home, and the waterways.
- Don’t dump it; drop it off. There are several locations in and around Chicago where residents can drop off unused or expired medicationsand other hazardous household waste, including several Walgreen’s stores. The Illinois EPA also organizes drop-off days twice a year.
- Never dump anything into street drains. In some Chicago neighborhoods, the gutter drains empty directly into the river. In the rest of the city, drains lead to the water treatment plant, where some pollutants will either be filtered out or, as is the case with many chemicals, released back into the river. In the event of severe floods, anything in the river can even find its way into Lake Michigan and, eventually, back to your tap water. So if you don’t want to do it for the river, do it for yourself.
4. Conserve water – especially during storms.
Reducing the amount of water flowing out of our homes and into our sewers is always important but even more so during a storm event. When local sewer systems overflow, they release untreated, raw sewage directly into the river and/or the lake, as well as streets and homes.
- Delay washing clothes, taking long showers, and turning on the faucets any more than is necessary during storms.
- You can receive warnings about the threat of sewer overflows before they happen by signing up for the Friends of the Chicago River’s Overflow Action Alerts. Reminders will be delivered to your inbox before, during, and after potential overflows so that you know when to be particularly mindful about conserving water.
There is an unprecedented effort underway throughout the region to clean up our rivers and make them more welcoming for plants, wildlife, and people who want to canoe, kayak, hike, and fish – and maybe, someday, swim. If you’re interested in joining those efforts, here are just some of the organizations you can get involved with:
- The Chicago Park District and the Forest Preserves of Cook Countyboth host volunteer stewardship days, bringing local residents together to clean and maintain public natural areas and waterways.
- Friends of the Chicago River is one of the largest and most active organizations dedicated to improving the Chicago River system. In addition to being vocal advocates, they educate the public about the river at their McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum and organize numerous events throughout the year to clean up and restore the river and its banks.
- Urban Rivers is working to improve water quality and create wildlife habitat along the Chicago River with floating gardens. In the summer of 2017, they had 1,500 square feet of aquatic gardens near Goose Island; their goal is to have a mile-long, aquatic wildlife habitat by 2020. They enlist “river rangers” to monitor plant health and wildlife and remove trash, weeds, or invasive species.
- Shedd Aquarium recently expanded its Great Lakes Action Days to include work days along the South Branch of the Chicago River at Ping Tom Memorial Park. They gather volunteers to clean up litter in the park and in the river, remove invasive plants, and install native plants.
6. Enjoy the river.
The Clean Water Act of 1972, the primary federal law governing water pollution, is written so that the more a waterway is used for recreation, the cleaner it is required to be.
As Stacy Meyers, staff attorney at regional conservation organization Openlands tells us, “If we want to help our rivers, just go and love them. Go and visit them. Go and paddle in them. Walk beside them, and that in and of itself is adding to the justification to protect them.”
Check out our guide to exploring the Chicago River for recreational opportunities near you.