Are waterways unsafe?

Bacteria levels in the Chicago River are so high that signs say the waterways are unsafe for “any human body contact.” Yet families are drawn to the river for canoeing, kayaking and boating. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune)

In response to efforts to clean up the Chicago River, top officials at the taxpayer-funded agency that handles Cook County's sewage and stormwater have argued that the endeavor would waste money, cause global warming and lead to children drowning.

But after spending eight years and more than $13 million fighting tougher water-quality standards, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is poised today to officially drop its long-standing opposition.

A majority of the district's nine elected board members told the Tribune that they back an Obama administration plan to make stretches of the Chicago River, Cal-Sag Channel and Little Calumet River safer for recreation. The project, first proposed years ago by state officials but repeatedly delayed by district objections, will require new equipment to scour disease-causing bacteria from 1.2 billion gallons of partially treated human and industrial waste dumped into area waterways every day.

Three board members who promised during their campaigns to back the effort — Michael Alvarez, Debra Shore and Mariyana Spyropoulos — are pushing for "policy direction" that puts the district on record in support of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order that requires a cleaner river. The initiative already is backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, and other elected officials.

At Alvarez's request, the district's board on Thursday will discuss the issue publicly for the first time. If they vote, as expected, to drop efforts to block or delay tougher river standards, it will amount to a sharp rebuke of Terrence O'Brien, the board's longtime president and chief critic of the EPA plan.

"I look forward to working with all the powers-that-be to come up with a plan to clean up the river and a way to fund it," said Commissioner Cynthia Santos, who changed her mind after having joined O'Brien last month for a news conference where he and district staff lambasted the EPA.

Another commissioner, Barbara McGowan, said she decided to back the river cleanup during a recent closed-door meeting where the board debated how to react to the EPA order. In return, she wants more attention paid to improving public access to waterways throughout the county.

The first sign of a political shift came in March, when the board blocked a raise for attorneys who already have been paid more than $1 million to represent the district in the Chicago River dispute. O'Brien had pushed to increase the pay rate for Barnes & Thornburg to $400 an hour, up from $350 an hour.

On Wednesday, O'Brien said he would not thwart a change in the district's policy. But he argued that adding disinfection equipment would take money away from sewer projects and other programs.

"We have to be fiscally responsible for our constituents," O'Brien said. "This is an unfunded federal mandate."

Three other commissioners, Frank Avila, Patricia Horton and Kathleen Therese Meany, did not respond to Tribune inquiries.

Until now, the Chicago River and its connected channels have been exempt from the toughest provisions of the 1972 Clean Water Act. The EPA's order would require Illinois to adopt water-quality standards that already are in place throughout the nation.

Depending on the time of year, between 60 and 100 percent of the water in the river comes from sewage treatment plants operated by the Water Reclamation District. Because Chicago is the only major city that skips an important germ-killing step, levels of bacteria and other pathogens are so high that signs state the waterways are unsafe for "any human body contact."

Yet with occasional encouragement from the district, people increasingly are drawn to the river for canoeing, kayaking and boating.

"We're on the river almost every day, and we know how gross it can be," said Meg Roberts, a junior at the Latin School and member of the Lincoln Park Juniors rowing team. "People shouldn't have to put up with this in a city like Chicago."

The preferred fix is to zap wastewater with ultraviolet light, speeding up the germ-killing action of sunlight. Using district financial data, the EPA estimates that installing the equipment at the North Side and Calumet plants would cost up to $72 million, which, along with ongoing efforts to keep raw sewage out of the river, could cost an average Cook County homeowner less than $7 a month if local taxpayers alone picked up the tab. (Most sewer projects are funded with substantial federal support.)

O'Brien and top district staff members say the waterways have been altered so much that it would be pointless to improve water quality. Engineers reversed the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan more than a century ago to separate the city's waste from its source of drinking water.

Even after disinfection equipment is installed, district officials say, the river still will be hit with raw waste and stormwater that pours from sewers during rainstorms. District officials once promised that their Deep Tunnel project, a $3.3 billion network of huge sewers and reservoirs, would "eliminate waterway pollution." But during a hearing this week before a Chicago City Council committee, district officials said the project "may never completely eliminate" sewage overflows even after it's completed in 2029.

District officials also have argued that disinfecting sewage would increase their electricity bills and therefore create more greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants. And they have cited the death last year of an 8-year-old boy who tumbled into the river as an example of how the EPA's plan would "place additional lives at risk." (The boy could not swim.)

The EPA says that although completing the Deep Tunnel project is necessary, so is cleaning up the sewage treatment plants. To improve safety, the EPA says, there could be restrictions on when and where the waterways are used for recreation, similar to rules for other bodies of water.

"A healthy river will enhance the quality of life for everyone," said Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, chairman of the city's Health and Environmental Protection Committee and one of 42 aldermen co-sponsoring a resolution that supports the EPA initiative. "We'd like you to entertain our idea of envisioning a city where its residents can access its vital and important resource."

Tribune reporters Hal Dardick and Jared S. Hopkins contributed.

mhawthorne@tribune.com

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