Wednesday, November 30, 2011

River walk

It is lovely downtown by the Chicago river, even as winter starts to draw in. The skyscrapers and the water provide one of the world's most impressive urban settings. You can descend down from the busy street level in a few steps and arrive at the peaceful river. From there you can leave all the hustle behind and stroll through town and out to the (now) blustery lake. The river itself, like so many other things in this town, is a dirty mess but one that is finally being cleaned up. The future of the city, as well as the river, may be less murky now that local water officials say they will disinfect the sewage that goes into it.

One of the people I interviewed for a recent piece on the river, Debra Shore, a commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, said that her agency is looking at a host of other water quality standards being proposed by the state environmental protection agency. In the future, it isn't just the sewage that will be cleaned up but the river could see improvements in the amount of dissolved oxygen (which would help aquatic life), and the amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen which would reduce the growth of algae.

All these water quality issues are important not only for the current and future users of the river, but for everyone downstream. At the moment, all the junk that Chicago throws into its river ends up in the Gulf of Mexico and contributes to creating one of the world's largest dead zones. A depressing invention of modernity, a vast area of the ocean where so much crapola has been dumped into the ocean that little or nothing can survive there. The Louisiana fishing industry, the second largest in the nation according to this piece, is being damaged by an excess of nutrients being flushed into the ocean.

I also spoke to David Spielfogel, who is the head of policy and planning in the City of Chicago for the Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He put the problem of the Chicago River into perspective. The lake, he said, was a spectacular front yard where people flee at the weekends and bikers use to get downtown. The river could offer just the same thing but going through the heart of the city. And let us not forget that some of the city's most expensive real estate is by the lake. Experience from other major cities around the world tells us that city riverfront properties ought to be glamorous, desirable and expensive--not so cheap that you put your warehouses and industry there.

Margaret Frisbie, Executive Director of the Friends of the Chicago River, told me about the history of the river. How her group formed after a piece had been published about the friendless Chicago River and how in the early days they pushed for access to the water and a continuous river trail with guerrilla canoeing, and by taking people out and showing them the marvel on their doorstep.

It is all starting to pay off now that water quality is on the agenda. Margaret also told me that in the last five years the conversation about the Chicago River has changed. "People know what you are talking about when you talk about the river, its not about sewage and shipping, its about people, wildlife, boating, property values and for the first time regular people who are not involved in environmental activism or live near it see the value in a whole new way".

Groups like the Friends of the Chicago River, and the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, can look at the river and reflect on a quiet victory for common sense. You can also read the NRDC's report on the river here