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The Chicago River Cleanup: A Fascinating Tale of Humankind’s Collaboration with Nature

by
Aug 13th, 2013

As far as large urban areas are concerned, Chicago has a reputation for being one of the country’s clean spots.  This wasn’t always the case.  A hundred years ago, the streets of Chicago were ravaged with filth; its air was polluted with emissions from industrial plants; and its cholera-causing waterways had such a concentration of vile waste that critics spurned the Chicago River as flammable.  In the perennial muckraking classic The Jungle, Upton Sinclair wrote of the river’s South Fork: “the grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name.”  That name is Bubbly Creek, and it has stuck for nearly a century.  Thanks to a number of coordinated efforts, Chicagoans today enjoy a much cleaner water and lake than those who lived in the city a hundred years ago.

The Chicago River’s Early Role

Although shallow and slow moving, the Chicago River played a vital role in the development of the City of Chicago as a major port city in America’s Midwestern heartland.  By the turn of the 20 century, however, pollutants aplenty accompanied the movement of ships down the river and into Lake Michigan, which supplied most of the city’s 1.7 million inhabitants with their drinking water.  Cholera, typhoid and other waterborne illnesses were rampant, and something needed to be done in order to keep outbreaks of these diseases from affecting the city’s inhabitants at epidemic proportions.

The Chicago River Reversal                                                                                                                                          

The answer to this problem came in the form of a large-scale water flow reversal project.  Rather than terminate in Lake Michigan, water in the Chicago River would flow in the opposite direction, toward the Mississippi River.  This was a long and arduous process, but eventually civil engineers from the Sanitary District of Chicago successfully reversed the flow of the river’s water with the construction of the Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Complying with EPA Regulations

The Clean Water Act (CWA), passed in 1972, spurred a new flurry of discussion and activity related to the sanitation of the Chicago River.  One of the act’s goals was to make surface waters in the United States suitable for human sports and recreation.  Since this time, considerable time, money, and manpower have been invested in improving the quality of water in the Chicago River.

The Latest Efforts

If Chicago’s citizens and politicians continue to take a vested interested in the cleanliness of the Chicago River, the days in which people can swim and fish in the river without having to worry about getting sick may not be far off.  Recreational use of the river has steadily increased since 1979, and politicians and other public figures frequently champion the cause of cleaning up the river.  Chicago’s children learn about the river and its important role in Chicago’s history in school. All of these efforts are likely to make the Chicago River of equal importance to the Windy City’s future as it was to the city’s past.

Regardless of where in Chicago you live, you should be grateful for the efforts taken by those in past generations and today to care about the city’s livability.  If you are a prospective resident of the city’s newest AMLI property, AMLI River North, then you will have an opportunity to live just a stone’s throw away from this influential body of water in a well-appointed Chicago apartment.  You can enjoy the festive air that comes with the river’s green dye on St. Patrick’s Day and stay fit by running or cycling along the river’s banks.  Who knows?  You may even be able to swim and fish in the river before long.

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View All Posts by Jason Ernst
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