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Dear Chicago: Let’s clean up the Chicago River

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To say that fishing is the central passion of Don Dubin’s life might be an understatement. The Chicago native spent his boyhood fishing in public parks on the city’s West Side. As an adult, he was inducted into the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. Now Dubin is in his 70s and you can still find him casting his reel along the lakefront or on the banks of the Chicago River.

Dubin worries about the health of Chicago’s waterways, especially as the conversation about re-reversing the Chicago River gets more attention. The river was severely polluted long before former Mayor Richard J. Daley proposed the goal of making it swimmable and fishable in the 1970s. In June the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made the same recommendation in a letter sent to the state. The current Mayor Daley reacted angrily to the suggestion, telling federal officials to “go swim in the Potomac.”

Chicago’s lakefront has 26 miles of parkland with many points of public access, but the city’s riverfront is mostly undeveloped. Dubin hopes Chicago’s next mayor will tend to the health of the Chicago River, and help turn the central waterway from an undervalued resource into a clean, accessible public amenity.

Dear Chicago,
I’ve been fishing ever since I was a little boy. I started out when my grandfather used to take me to Chicago parks like Douglas Park and Garfield Park. And I was just fascinated to see the little fish swimming around. And I thought, jeez, if I could catch one that would be great. And then one day I did catch one! It was a minnow. I put my hand in the water and tried to corral him. I got a little piece of string with a little hook and used Wonder Bread for bait. And I did get that little minnow and I put him in a little Dixie cup and took him home and put him in a little glass fish bowl and watched him for quite a while. That’s how I started.

I try to get out at least twice a week. Sometimes I get out to the Chicago lakefront just to see what’s happening. On the North Side, just east of Von Steuben High School, I go fishing in Ronan Park. It’s where the North Branch of the river converges with the North Shore Channel. There’s a little waterfall there and it’s a great place for fishing. You have a lot of oxygen there and a little current and the fish congregate there.

There are all kinds of fish in the river: bass, northern pike, croppies, blue gills, sun fish, carp, and catfish. I’ve even seen trout and salmon in the river. When I was a kid I used to go to Ronan Park because I lived in Albany Park, and there was nothing there. It was just terrible. And now there are fish there and there are people fishing there. There’s no question that it’s absolutely, positively, much, much better.

So it’s better but not good enough. I would not eat the fish. It’s strictly a catch and release fishery. It could be cleaned up so it’s a much better environment.

To improve the quality of the river the first thing you’d have to do is improve the quality of the waste water going into the river. When the original Mayor Daley made his statement about wanting the river to be swimmable and fishable, at the time it wasn’t even thinkable that you could be fishing in an area like the Chicago River. It was an open sewer. The sewer water would go into the sewage treatment plant and get dumped into the river.

You got to realize that if you asked me what the most valuable resource in the entire world is, it’s got to be fresh, clean water. But the sewage treatment plants that we have do not do as good a job of cleaning up the water as they could be. All across the world and the country there are sewage plants that clean the water and the final stage is very clean. So it could be cleaned up and it should be cleaned up. It’s not as dirty as it was; we have made improvements on the river. But I’d like to see us go two steps further and make it the jewel of the Chicagoland area.

If the next mayor wants to re-reverse the Chicago River, I would support it if they cleaned up the water where it’s clean enough there are no harmful pathogens in the water. If they did a dredging job on the existing muck on the bottom of there, and made park land and accessibility, I would definitely support it.

There are not too many places to fish along the river until you get downtown. When they dug the river there was no access on either side. It was just like a channel. And the banks on either side of the river are very steep and covered with all kinds of vegetation. I’d like to see the shoreline improved so there’s accessibility. More public parking and more parks along the way, maybe we can even have boat access for canoes and small boats. And really make it into a first class fishery, and a place where people can enjoy the river like I do.

Access is the key to fishing the Chicago River. It’s almost like it hasn’t been discovered, and I sure would like to see it be discovered and made into something valuable. Just think if that area was developed into park land. It would improve property values and give people a place to go to see wildlife, the birds and the animals that enjoy the river. Right now there are plans to improve the lakefront at Northerly Island, to make it into a wildlife sanctuary. The same could be done to the Chicago River! It runs right through where people are living. It could be done. It would improve Chicago for all the people.

Dear Chicago is a project of WBEZ’s Partnership Program. Don Dubin was nominated for the series by Metropolitan Planning Council.

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