Tribune archive photo: Bubbly Creek on June 25, 1920, looking east from the Morgan Street bridge. This section, known as the Stockyard Slip, was filled in the 1920s.

Tribune archive photo: Bubbly Creek on June 25, 1920, looking east from the Morgan Street bridge. This section, known as the Stockyard Slip, was filled in the 1920s.

About the Bubbly Creek victim: The incredible story of a robbery victim who was amazingly unlucky and lucky in the same moment provides the reader with a graphic and tactile description of the polluted waterway. It appeared in the Tribune on May 21, 1911.

Editor’s note: This narrative doesn’t add up unless this “8 o’clock” is a “3 o’clock.” It could be a typographical error (in an era when that really meant an error with a piece of type) or this copy was over-inked, closing up the number. (Chicago Tribune / June 25, 2011)

Cleaning up the Chicago River, a waterway engineered to flow backward and lined with dozens of sewage pipes, has always been a tough fight.

At the turn of the last century, officials reversed the river and started sending Chicago's waste toward the Mississippi River -- away from Lake Michigan, the city's source of drinking water. But by the 1930s, legal complaints from St. Louis and other towns led the U.S. Supreme Court to order Chicago to clean up its filth.

Yet even today, when rainstorms fill sewers to capacity, a noxious mix of human waste, industrial pollution and runoff pours out of overflow pipes into the river. During the biggest rains, locks and gates are opened, the river resumes its original course and gunk flows into Lake Michigan.

In the early 1970s, passage of the federal Clean Water Act led to another attempt to solve the region's chronic problems with sewage dumping and flooding: The Deep Tunnel system is designed to hold waste and runoff until it can be safely treated. But billions of gallons of filthy water still pour into the river after storms.

Pushed by the EPA, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District will be forced to work harder to clean up the river. The MWRD's board voted this month to back the effort after years of objections. (Among other things, district officials had argued that cleansing the river for recreational use would lead to drownings.)

As early as 1905, residents were pushing to either clean up Bubbly Creek or bury it. (One portion called the Stockyard Slip was filled in the 1920s.) But Bubbly Creek remains, and bubbles still occasionally rise up from the offal and carcasses caked on the bottom. When scientists studied the waterway in 2004, they found "fibrous material" up to three feet thick -- remnants of cow and pig parts dumped decades earlier. The creek still is so dirty that nature isn't allowed to work its magic and break down waste.

A surge in development on the main branches has helped fuel the slow but steady movement to clean up the river. Eventually, it might even meet a goal set by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, who mused about downtown workers being able to go down to the river during their lunch hour, catch a fish and cook it up along the bank.

As for Bubbly Creek, cleanup will have to wait; it isn't included in the latest order from the EPA.

mhawthorne@tribune.com

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