By: Tom Bamonte
In a truly extraordinary development the EPA has ordered the State of Illinois to impose water quality standards designed to make some key segments of the Chicago River and the Cal-Sag Channel fit for swimming. Imagine practicing rolls and rescues in the Chicago River!
This was an unexpected development. The big fight in the multi-year rule-making proceeding that is still pending in the Illinois Pollution Control Board was whether the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago should disinfect sewage before pumping it into the Chicago River system. Even the environmental groups who were among the many proponents of disinfection did not go the next step and argue that the Clean Water Act required that the River reach a swimability standard.
There was one notable exception: CASKA and the many paddling and rowing groups who joined in a statement filed with the IPCB two years ago. In our statement we supplied evidence and arguments why the region should aim higher and embrace a swimability standard on those stretches of the river system that were already supporting extensive recreational use. In addition through this statement and a variety of public comments and testimony we rebutted the argument that the Chicago River is too dangerous and too unappealing to ever support anything other than sewage and barge traffic. We pointed out that the protected waters of the River offer a paddling environment that is in many respects safer and more inviting than Lake Michigan.
We can't say for sure that the paddling community's evidence and singular exhortations to aim higher are what inspired the EPA's dramatic action directing state and local authorities to implement a swimability standard. What is certain is the paddling community will have lots more to do to help ensure that the State and local authorities do what is necessary to comply with the EPA's directive. Already there are signs that the MWRDGC is digging in its heels and will oppose the EPA order.
The day of the order I was biking on the Division Avenue bridge over the Chicago River. There arrayed on the River were about 20 kayaks from the Kayak Chicago launch a half mile to the north. The paddlers were new for the most part, veering back and forth, but they seemed quite happy to be out on the river on a nice sunny day. It made me realize that it was our presence on the River over the years in brightly colored kayaks that has helped inspire the vision of a clean and safe river that is now mandated by the EPA.
Friends of the Chicago River is a community group that has been very supportive of the paddling community--including sponsoring the Flatwater Classic. The group will surely play a key role in pressuring the MWRDGC to comply with the EPA's directive.