Feds okay Chicago River cleanup

November 7, 2011

(WBEZ/file)
The new regulations will limit disease-causing bacteria in the river for the first time.

After months of back and forth, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has approved Illinois' new water quality standards for several Chicago area waterways.  For more than a year, the EPA has encouraged Illinois to make the Chicago and Calumet Rivers clean enough to swim in.

Former Mayor Richard Daley responded to federal regulators by telling them to "go swim in the Potomac." 

Chicago is one of the few big cities in the country that doesn't disinfect sewage before discharging it. But this past May, the EPA's encouragement became a demand. After overcoming political opposition from local water officials, the Illinois government was forced to change its quality standards. Local water officials will now have to disinfect water discharged into the river system.

The approved standards will apply to the North and South Branches of the Chicago River, the North Shore Channel, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River.

An EPA official says the new standards will transform the Chicago River from a sewage canal to a recreational and economic asset.