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State To Pump $10 Million Into Fund To Clean Up Chicago River

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CHICAGO (CBS) — The State of Illinois plans to add $10 million to a $21 million fund to disinfect sewage flowing into the Chicago River, as Chicago joins other major cities in making the most of a natural asset.

As WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports, Gov. Pat Quinn joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel along the river’s North Branch near Division Street and Goose Island Thursday afternoon, to talk about some ambitious plans for the river.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports

The fund will build systems for disinfecting sewage so that the river will be swimmable and fishable, and will feature walking and biking paths along its entire length.

“For the 2016 recreation season, this will be in full effect,” Quinn said.

Quinn says there will be boathouses for kayaking, among many other new features.

“So that people when they kayak, or they walk along the river, or do anything they want – to look at the river or the wildlife near the river – it’s important that we make sure the river is as clean as possible,” Quinn said.

There will even be the possibility of river races, as once won by former Tarzan – the late Johnny Weissmuller, Quinn said.

“From the mouth of Lake Michigan all the way to Wolf Point, and someday soon we want to have that swimming again, and maybe the Olympic rowing trials – something like that,” Quinn said.

The city’s view of the river has changed dramatically over the years. Executive director Margaret Frisbie says when Friends of the Chicago River started in 1979, the river didn’t have many friends.

Rather, it was something between an industrial drain and open sewer, she said.

“We look at how people love the Charles River in Boston – there’s people around it all the time – when we look at New York City and the work they’re doing on the Hudson; it’s in process, it’s not built all at once. It’s step-by-step,” Frisbie said. “But we’re doing it in Chicago. The Chicago Riverwalk is a step. When they opened that Riverwalk, literally, the first day, there was a press conference, and under the bridge came someone walking a dog, someone else pushing a stroller.”

Last year, the EPA 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 applies to all three branches of the Chicago River, as well as the North Shore Channel, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River.

Around the same time, the Chicago River also made the “America’s Most Endangered Rivers” list from the conservation group American Rivers, which called the river a “health threat.”

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, according to published reports.

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.

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, according to published reports.

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