Friday, April 21, 2023

The Polluted Chicago River History of Improvements in Water Quality.

Along the Chicago River, further from the lakefront, the river remained something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed.

Water pollution is the contamination of water bodies that, include lakes, rivers, oceans, aquifers, reservoirs and groundwater, usually due to human activities, so it negatively affects its uses.

In 1926 the "Henry C. Grebe & Co. Inc. Shipyard" moved to Chicago on the north branch of the Chicago River at Belmont Avenue, across the river from the famous Riverview [Amusement] Park. During WWII, the shipyard built over 56 ships, wood, and steel, for the U.S. Navy, including 21 tugboats, 4 tankers, and 28 minesweepers.
Grebe Shipyard looks east across the Chicago River. Note Riverview Park's rides, Shoot the Chutes and The Bobs roller coaster in the background, circa 1928.

The opening of Chicago’s first wastewater treatment plant in 1928 reduced the amount of raw sewage, but the river remained laden with industrial chemicals and byproducts. Riverside real estate was cheap, and river wards, dominated by pollution and stench, were still some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

During the Great Depression, many people lived directly on the river’s North Branch in a floating makeshift houseboat squatters’ camp near Irving Park Road.
Houseboats sitting along the North Branch of the Chicago River sometime between 1920 and 1929.

Around the same time, riverfront property near Division Street on Diversey Parkway was chosen as the site for one of the nation’s first low-income housing projects, the Chicago Housing Authority’s Julia Lathrop Homes.
Aerial view of 18th Street and the Chicago River during the river straightening project in May 1929.

The overcrowded, impoverished area on and around Goose Island became known as “Little Hell,” a reference to the conditions on the island as well as the coal-gasification plant that belched out smoke and flames nearby. It was occupied by a succession of immigrant groups who came to work in the steel mills and other factories along the North Branch.
Four girls standing in an empty lot in Little Hell in September 1902. 

In recent years, the relationship between Chicago’s river and its people has entered an entirely new chapter. Aided by the deindustrialization of the mid-twentieth century, a growing sense of environmental stewardship, federal regulations such as the Clean Water Act of 1972, and yet another round of monumental public works projects, the Chicago River continues to undergo dramatic improvements in water quality and accessibility.

Construction on the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), or Deep Tunnel, began in 1975. The first portion of the massive underground system began functioning in 1981. It is a project that outdoes even Chicago’s forebearers in terms of investment. When it is completed in 2029 at the cost of $3.8 billion, it should be able to hold up to 20.55 billion gallons of excess water.

The Deep Tunnel project has reduced the number of combined sewer overflows (CSO) that take place in a year. But even in the areas where it is fully operational, it hasn’t managed to eliminate them completely. And given the increasing prevalence of intense, fast-moving storms, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) now says that TARP will unlikely completely resolve Chicago’s sewage overflow problem in the future.

Since shortly after the passage of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, a network of environmental groups has steadily gained in size and political strength and used it to monitor polluters and pressure government agencies, including the MWRD, to continue improving the Chicago River.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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