First, the river was engineered to flow towards the Mississippi Valley, making Chicago an important shipping hub. This also helped flush the lakefront toilet, quite literally, as Lake Michigan used to be the end result of the Windy City's excrement, causing major health issues among residents.
Now, Chicago has found cause to reverse the flow of the river once again, this time for recreational purposes. But no, the actual current of the river will not be altered.
Rather, the 100 years plus of negative environmental impacts on the river are what are hoped to be reversed.
Why are we only addressing this issue now, after such a prolonged period of mistreating the river? Well, first you must understand how the river has been classified.
When the river was first reversed, Chicago set a precedent that the river was intended for sewage and waste transportation only, thus excluding it from the 1972 Clean Water Act. Because the river was essentially of no desire to Chicago residents, there was no requirement from the EPA to comply.
Now, the EPA is ordering Chicago to comply with the Clean Water Act. Specifically, this means that the water must be suitable for "primary contact", or for kayakers, canoeing, and even swimming.
But don't get too excited just yet...
Chicago approved the Deep Tunnel flood-control project....nearly 4 decades ago. The purpose of this project? To divert raw sewage and other chemical wastes from waterways after storms. Its right on schedule to be completed by 2029.
However, portions of the project have been completed, and there have been some positive signs. According to one source, the fish have returned, even though its still not healthy to eat them. And Gov. Pat Quinn has announced that another $10 million will be spent on supporting a Chicago River cleanup project.
Its nice to see, finally, more attention and resources being diverted to the actual health of the river. However, as one of the most critically endangered waterways in the United States, the work has only just begun.
So, until these projects are complete, Chicago may struggle to hold up their end of the bargain with the EPA. And the best place to be on the Chicago River is still on a boat or bridge.