History of the Chicago River

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The Chicago River has become famous for its green color during the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and its reversal over a century ago. Beyond these, it serves many purposes for the city, from commercial and industrial development to recreational usage.

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During Chicago's rapid industrialization, the Chicago River had to deal with the dumping of sewage and harmful chemicals on a regular basis. Before the Clean Water Act of 1972, there were no laws or mandates stopping companies from dumping harmful waste into urban waterways. As the sewage, rubbish, and chemicals flowed from the Chicago River into the lake, it posed a health risk to the city's drinking water. This threatening situation prompted the Sanitary District of Chicago, now named the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), to undertake a massive engineering project that reversed the direction of the river in 1900. The project was dubbed one of the greatest civil engineering achievements of the 20th century.

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The reversal carried contaminated water away from the city's drinking water source to the newly built Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that flows into the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi River and ends in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the reversal, the city and many passionate stakeholders have worked to improve the water quality of the river so that it may serve as more than just a commercial highway and open sewer.

Map of Chicago, ca 1833

Map of Chicago, ca 1833

Chicago is a city shaped by water. Expanded access, stronger infrastructure and enhanced storm water management help to protect our spectacular lake and rivers, connect us with Chicago’s heritage, create new ways to enjoy the city, and ensure that future generations will continue to benefit from Chicago’s unique access to the Great Lakes ecosystem.
— The City of Chicago (2015)
12th Street bascule bridge, Chicago, Illinois, ca. 1905

12th Street bascule bridge, Chicago, Illinois, ca. 1905

Workers in one the TARP tunnels. Source, MWRD.

Workers in one the TARP tunnels. Source, MWRD.

In 1972, the U.S. Clean Water Act was established to prevent direct discharge of pollutants into any body of water across the country, thus ensuring that the water quality would be safe for underwater ecosystems, as well as the public. The effects of the Clean Water Act in Chicago were just one step toward restoring the waterway. With the help of MWRD, the water quality of the Chicago River was further improved by the establishment of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP). Construction of TARP commenced in 1981 to collect all combined stormwater and sewage before it overflowed into the waterways of Chicago. In 1986, the project won the award for most outstanding civil engineering project of 1986 from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In 2012, the Chicago River was finally approved for general and recreational usage in eight segments of the river by the U.S. EPA. Among the many efforts of MWRD, in 2016 the organization also introduced Ultraviolet Irradiation Technology to further disinfect the wastewater it treated. The technology is cost efficient and cleans wastewater more effectively than previous methods. Thus, adding to the ongoing mission of creating clean and flourishing urban waterways in and around the City of Chicago.

The City of Chicago recently stated, “The goal is to reconnect Chicagoans with the river, improve both human well-being and the environment, while enhancing economic development that is sustainable for future generations.” Chicago now provides residents and visitors with a stellar Riverwalk, boat rides, kayaks, and other water activities.

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