On a warm spring morning, the Chicago River doesn’t look like the site of a decades-long environmental struggle. A gaggle of school children from a downtown preschool playfully scuttle after their teachers along the riverside walkway, just off Michigan Avenue. Dozens of brightly clad cyclists, runners and morning coffee drinkers are exploiting the unseasonable warmth. They do well not to get tangled up with the kids as they scamper about.
“You just don’t get views like this anywhere else. The skyscrapers frame the river,” brags Lauren Bullard, a proud Chicago resident of two years.
What few newcomers like Bullard realize is that the placid scene masks a long struggle to clean up a waterway that was once a stinking cesspool and even now still largely consists of treated — but not disinfected — sewage effuent, rendering its waters still unsafe for drinking or swimming. The city of Chicago has spent over $3 billion to date on a massive project affectionately known as “the deep tunnel.” When finally completed, the project will have altogether changed the way that Chicago and other parts of Cook County use water. Positive results from the investment have already been recorded, and the river’s water quality has significantly improved.
The deep tunnel’s purpose is to keep sewage from pouring into the river during heavy rains. This “combined sewage overflow” is an endemic problem in many older cities, including Chicago, New York, Boston and almost 800 smaller communities in the Midwest and Northeast, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates.
When the rain fills and inundates the drainage system, raw sewage is forced to skip the treatment plants and is dumped into the river to make way for the rainwater.
The deep tunnel is designed to prevent this by vastly increasing the capacity of the system to hold and distribute water during and after rainstorms. It is a vast network of over 209 miles of tunnels and will contain three reservoirs when the project is finally finished.
The McCook reservoir is the largest single component of the deep tunnel project, which, according to the city, isn’t expected to come online until 2029. “That’s not good enough,” says Margaret Frisbie of the Friends of the Chicago River, a local environmental group. She is looking for ways to bring forward the deadline.
Even without the reservoir, there have been signs of improvement since the project began. In the 1980s there were only seven species of fish in the downtown river. Since then, the bulk of the tunnels have been brought into working action, and there are now 70 fish species. “It’s huge when you think of that measure alone. It’s wildly exciting,” says Frisbie. The river’s new lease on life, she says, is thanks to the fact that “85 percent of [sewage] that used to overflow into the river has been eliminated.”
In the meantime, Chicagoans are making the most of the river. Posh restaurants and chic apartment buildings now compete for space along the downtown riverfront, and businesses such as Chicago River Canoe and Kayak owe their success to the upgraded water quality. Ryan Chew, the owner, is about to start his 12th season renting out canoes. He says he lucked out with the timing of setting up his business, which also reflects where the Chicago River is on its road to recovery: “If we had opened the business five years earlier, the river might not have been nice. If we had opened five years later, someone else might have found the spot.”