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Chicago River Makes ‘Most Endangered Waterways’ List

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Chicago River

The main branch of the Chicago River, near Franklin Street. (Credit: CBS)

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UPDATED 05/17/11 7:15 a.m.

CHICAGO (CBS/WBBM) – The Chicago River is being declared one of the nation’s most endangered waterways.

As CBS 2’s Kris Habermehl and WBBM Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya report, the conservation group American Rivers has placed the Chicago River system on the list for the first time. The Chicago River is among just 10 on a nationwide list where major cleanup action is being considered by policymakers.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya reports

“It’s a health threat right now, and we want the people of Chicago to embrace their river; be able to enjoy it,” said Amy Kober of American Rivers.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) says it’s time to require that wastewater that goes into the Chicago River be disinfected.

“I understand that money is tight right now, and I’m the leader of the tight-money caucus,” Kirk said. “But we should set an overall goal of making sure that the Chicago River is as healthy as any other river in America.

The Chicago River made the “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” list just the week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanded that parts of the river be clean enough for “recreation in and on the water,” which means activities from swimming to canoeing.

The order also applies to the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River.

“Right now, you need to be really careful. You have to wash your hands, you can’t rub your eyes,” Margaret Frisbe, of the Friends of the Chicago River, told CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley last week. “There are populations who are at risk like children, pregnant women, anyone with compromised immune system. They’re at really great risk from bacterial sewage.”

The federal EPA says it will step in if the Illinois EPA does not tighten its water standards.

State EPA interim director Lisa Bonnett said Wednesday that the EPA is pushing to have sewage treatment plants outfitted with disinfection equipment within three years.

Chicago is the only major city in the United States that does not disinfect human and industrial waste in the sewers before it ends up in the waterways, the Chicago Tribune reported.

But estimates put the cleanup cost at $425 million, which will likely mean higher sewer bills in Chicago and suburban Cook County, where such bills are among the nation’s lowest, the newspaper reported.

The Chicago River system runs 156 miles, and is the waterway that first drew explorers to the area. French explorers Louis Jolliet and the Rev. Jacques Marquette explored the Chicago River in 1673, and Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, the first permanent settler in Chicago, set up his farm on the north banks of the river in the 1780s.

But for longer than anyone has been alive today, the river has been associated with sewage and stink. In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River, after sewage emptying into Lake Michigan from the river’s main branch caused a public health crisis.

For most of the century afterward, the river was widely regarded as dirty and stinky, but beautification efforts have improved some parts of the river in the past 20 years.

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