Sewage Bacteria Makes Chicago River One of America’s Most Endangered Rivers

Sewage pollution threatens public health

May 17th, 2011

Gary Belan, American Rivers, (202) 347-7550, [email protected]
Margaret Frisbie, Friends of the Chicago River, (312) 939-0490, ext. 22, [email protected]
Peter Gray, Environmental Law & Policy Center, (312) 795-3715, [email protected]
Ann Alexander, Natural Resources Defense Council, (312) 651-7905, [email protected]

Chicago, Ill. – The daily discharge of 1.2 billion gallons of undisinfected sewage effluent into the Chicago River system threatens public health and has earned the river a place on the annual list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers™, a report issued by the conservation group American Rivers.

Supporting over six million residents regionally, the Chicago River flows through the heart of the nation’s third largest city. Tens of millions of dollars have been invested in river access and improvement including $100 million by Chicago and Chicago Park District in just the last ten years. But the undisinfected sewage effluent, released by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), threatens public health and the city’s environmental reputation. The effluent comprises 70 percent of the water in the Chicago River system.

American Rivers called on the Illinois Pollution Control Board to approve the proposed water quality standards for the Chicago River that have not been reviewed in more than two decades. These standards would require the MWRD to disinfect sewage effluent. 

“It’s unacceptable that the people of Chicago are being denied basic, modern disinfection techniques used by nearly every other city in the country,” said Gary Belan of American Rivers. “This as an opportunity not only to protect public health, but to make a clean and healthy Chicago River the centerpiece of a revitalized waterfront and world-class city.”

“The Chicago River is alive with people and possibility,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “Already tens of thousands of people row, paddle, fish, dine, live and work along the river. Millions would if the water was cleaner and MWRD stopped fighting disinfection and worked with us to find the funding for it instead.”

“Frankly, there isn’t really a choice,” said Ann Alexander, senior attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council. “A century ago it might have been OK to dump in the Chicago River, but the Clean Water Act simply doesn’t allow the waterway to be used as a sewer or toilet. It’s time for the regulators tasked with keeping the river clean to live up to the task.”

“Peoria, Illinois, Gary, Indiana and almost every other U.S. city disinfects its sewage because that’s the only safe and sanitary choice. MWRD has to do better,” said Jessica Dexter, attorney, Environmental Law & Policy Center. “Allowing sewage bacteria to contaminate the Chicago River is a health threat to Chicagoans and an insult to our City.”

Almost every major U.S. city disinfects its wastewater, reducing the health risks from dangerous pathogens, yet MWRD, which has control over what goes into Chicago’s waterways, has opposed disinfection. MWRD spent more than $13 million taxpayer dollars promoting the concept the waterway is designed for shipping and sewage, and trying to prove sewage effluent in the Chicago River is not a concern.  MWRD does disinfect its effluent to the Des Plaines River in the Chicago suburbs.

A study conducted for the Illinois Attorney General’s office concluded that restoring water quality would give a $1 billion boost to the economy over 20 years from recreation alone. 

About America’s Most Endangered Rivers

For 26 years, American Rivers has sounded the alarm on 360 rivers through our America’s Most Endangered Rivers report.  The report is not a list of the “worst” or most polluted rivers, but is a call to action for rivers at a crossroads, whose fates will be determined in the coming year. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.

American Rivers’ staff and scientific advisors review nominations for the following criteria:

  • A major decision that the public can help influence in the coming year
  • The significance of the river to people and wildlife
  • The magnitude of the threat, especially in light of climate change

For the third consecutive year, America’s Most Endangered Rivers™ is sponsored by The Orvis Company, which donates 5% of their pre-tax profits annually to protect nature.


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About American Rivers

About American Rivers

American Rivers protects wild rivers, restores damaged rivers, and conserves clean water for people and nature. Since 1973, American Rivers has protected and restored more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects, and the annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® campaign. Headquartered in Washington, DC, American Rivers has offices across the country and more than 200,000 members, supporters, and volunteers.

Rivers connect us to each other, nature, and future generations. Find your connections at AmericanRivers.org, Facebook.com/AmericanRivers, and Twitter.com/AmericanRivers.