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Illinois Issues
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Disinfection Dissatisfaction: Water Reclamation District in Chicagoland Does Not Disinfect Water

Barges go between the Des Plaines River and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
WUIS/Illinois Issues
Barges go between the Des Plaines River and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Fairy tales aside, ugly ducklings don’t become beautiful swans — biology just won’t have it. Likewise, transforming a sewage canal into a lush and lazy river may be a bit unrealistic. At least that’s the position of Chicago’s sewage handlers when it comes to disinfection and recreation on the city’s manufactured waterways. 

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is unique because it’s the only major treatment agency in the nation that does not disinfect most of its wastewater. But the district also empties the water into one-of-a-kind streams: 78 miles of the Chicago Area Waterway System are artificial, and 70 percent of the flow comes from sewers.

“It’s like putting bike riders on the Dan Ryan Expressway. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean we should shut it down so bike riders can be on it,” says Jill Horist, public affairs manager for the reclamation district. 

However, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency argues that if people are going to be on the water, the district must make an effort to keep them safe.

“Most of the waterway that runs through that system is human waste in origin. We know that people are recreating on those waterways,” says Rob Sulski, Illinois EPA water pollution programs manager. “We know that if you treat an effluent down to 400 [fecal coliforms per 100 mL], that you are killing enough human pathogens to reduce the risk to those recreators.” 

As of now, the reclamation district discharges filtered — but not disinfected — wastewater into the waterways with bacterial counts between 700 and 340,000 fecal coliforms per 100 mL. Not all of that bacteria is harmful to humans, but the discharge can include pathogens such as salmonella, legionella and cryptosporidium. Those and other pathogens can cause diarrhea, typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis, among a host of other nasty illnesses. 

In the past, bacterial presence in Chicago’s waterways didn’t matter. The canals were clearly unfit for recreation, and even most fish steered clear of the muddy waterway. 

These days, however, the water running through those same canals is a selling point to developers, a playground for active city dwellers and a home to 70 fish species. 

“There are two schools of thought. There are people who think the river is just great,” says Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River and an avid kayaker. She notes the now-familiar sight of high school rowing teams on the waterways. “Then you have people that have been around longer ... who assume the river is just disgusting. ... Either the river must be fine, or the river is polluted. And neither one of those is accurate. It’s something in between.” 

The Chicago Area Waterway System consists of the interconnected Chicago River, Sanitary and Ship Canal, Des Plaines River, Calumet-Sag Channel and Calumet River. Since Illinois began complying with the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, those waters have noticeably improved in appearance and composition. Under the Clean Water Act, any entity releasing polluted wastewater into exposed surface waters must have a permit to do so. 

In complying with the act, Chicago and most other sanitary wastewater treatment districts have addressed pollutants in two ways: disinfecting and reducing the frequency of wholly untreated discharges due to heavy rains. 

Chicago and about 120 other Illinois municipalities throughout the state run on combined sewer systems, where wastewater — flushed down toilets and drained from showers and sinks — runs through the same pipes as storm water — rain collected by street grates. 

During severe weather, combined sewer systems are tasked with collecting more water than they can process. As a result, the storm water, mixed with wastewater, is dumped directly into waterways as combined sewer overflow to keep the entire system from backing up and flooding streets and homes. In Chicago, combined sewer overflows can cause contamination of Lake Michigan, the city’s water supply.

To address combined sewer overflows, Chicago adopted a Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, locally known as TARP or Deep Tunnel, in 1972. 

“The biggest thing that prompted people to use the waterways more was when they completed the tunnels on the Deep Tunnel project, and the sewer overflows went down from one every maybe three days to once a month,” 

Sulski says. “As a result, the water looks cleaner most of the time.” 
Under the Deep Tunnel plan, overflow is held inside 109 miles of tunnel until the water can be pumped out, treated and released into the Chicago Area Waterway System. The system can now hold up to 2.3 billion gallons of water, but after three reservoirs are completed by 2024, it will hold up to 17.5 billion gallons. 

Although the TARP system is not yet operating at full capacity, Chicago’s reclamation district credits it for the return of aquatic life and the birth of recreational and commercial activity along the waterways. “Part of the reason people have built their homes [along the waterway] is because of the quality of the waterway, and we’re happy to have that happen. But they still are what they are,” Horist says. 

Friends of the Chicago River lauds the district for its Deep Tunnel efforts but says it shouldn’t stop there. “The whole reason disinfection is worthwhile is because they have done this amazing thing in a densely populated area,” says Frisbie. “They should be proud of that. ... The natural next step is disinfection.” 

Once upon a time, Chicago did disinfect and, using chlorination and dechlorination techniques, still does at three of its smaller treatment plants that empty into natural streams. At the larger plants, the ones now in question, the district started chlorinating in the late 1960s. Because the chlorine killed all the fish and little to no recreation took place on Chicago’s waterways, the district simply stopped disinfecting altogether in 1985. Now, with recreation on the rise, the Illinois EPA is taking another look at disinfection for the remaining treatment plants. 

But Horist argues that large numbers of kayakers and paddlers just don’t belong on barge-dominated waterways. Disinfection would only encourage the perception that such activities are welcome, leading to increased risks of kayaks meandering into the path of slow-to-stop industrial crafts. 

The Illinois EPA contends that waterway history is a moot point. “It’s irrelevant why it was built, how it was built. If there’s an existing use or an attainable use out there … you have to protect for it,” Sulski says. 

Horist also questions the sense of investing an estimated $1 billion over 20 years in ultraviolet disinfection technology without knowing the impact it would have on incidents of waterborne illnesses. 

To help quantify disinfection’s purported benefits, the district commissioned a study from the University of Illinois Chicago at a cost of $3.75 million. It tested water quality and asked recreators to report any incidents of illness after waterway use. Horist says preliminary results show pathogenic bacteria at statistically insignificant levels; full results are expected to be released later this year.

But even if the district proves that disinfection would not make a significant dent in recreation-related illnesses, cost versus benefit is not a valid part of the debate, contends Sulski. Federal exemption guidelines don’t address cost, only affordability. 

“The way the regulators look at it is: Can the population that’s served, can they afford it? … It’s based on median income,” Sulski says. “Some say it isn’t affordable, but they haven’t gone through that analysis.” 

Competing estimates released in 2007 placed the average household cost of disinfection at $8.32 and $45.13 each year, levied through property taxes. 

“Nobody said we get to have clean air and clean water if we have enough money. They said we need to protect public health,” Frisbie says. She suggests that the district start looking for grants and loans to fund the construction of disinfection facilities. “Rather than spend a lot of public money fighting something that protects public health, I would sit down ... and make a plan that makes this possible.” 

Besides monetary expenses, disinfection could have an environmental cost. “Effluent treatment will cause a rise in our carbon footprint, the energy it takes. There’s conversation again of reducing carbon footprints. ... So where does that go? How does that happen?” Horist asks. Additional disinfection facilities would raise the district’s annual carbon footprint by 98,300 tons of carbon dioxide, according to a study prepared for the district. Its 2008 output was 299,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

Frisbie calls both cost arguments “red herrings” and says the district should be looking for ways to fund disinfection instead of creating distractions. She says the district needs to conduct an energy audit on all of its operations and consider upgrading to newer, more efficient equipment.
While Chicago’s reclamation district resists additional disinfection, the rest of the country has already embraced the idea, Sulski says. 

“Everywhere else you go, people are disinfecting the effluents,” he says. Even among Illinois cities and towns, Chicago is a rarity in the quantities of bacteria it releases into what some argue are recreationally viable waterways. 
While all Illinois dischargers can release nondisinfected wastewater into waterways during the winter months, to do so during the prime recreational months, May through October, requires a permit. The only way to achieve the exemption is for a discharger to prove to the Illinois EPA that no harm will follow.

“Always, year-round disinfection exemptions are issued to very small streams that can’t be swimmed in or canoed on. They’re always remote from incidental contact of any frequency,” says Bob Mosher, Illinois EPA water quality standards manager. “Most small towns in Illinois ... are discharging into a very small stream or ditch surrounded by cornfields. That’s the type of entity that gets an exemption.” 

Mosher guessed that 300 to 400 facilities in Illinois disinfect sanitary water. About 35 or 40 larger towns are exempt but only following regular examination of recreational potential along the receiving waterways. 

“Just because everybody else does it, isn’t a good enough reason,” Horist says, noting that Chicago’s waterways are unique. 

“[Most of] our effluent is not going into natural bodies of water,” Horist says. 

“[Disinfection proponents] take great umbrage when I say they are engineered and manufactured waterways. They were built for the purpose of receiving treated effluent and commercial shipping. Recreation is a wonderful thing, but there’s a point in the conversation not to lose sight of what [the waterways] are.” 

Part of what makes the Chicago Area Waterway System different and has allowed the reclamation district to avoid disinfection is its classification for use. Almost all of the waterways in Illinois are designated as general use systems. Chicago waterways, however, are currently classified as secondary contact use, meaning no one comes into contact with the water on purpose. 

“One regulation concerning bacteria and disinfection exemptions applies to [about] 99.5 percent of the state. [There’s] another that applies just to the canals in Chicago,” Mosher says. 

Under the secondary use umbrella, dischargers into Chicago area waterways are not required to prove to Illinois EPA that no harm will come from releasing nondisinfected wastewater. 

“Essentially, [Illinois EPA] has nothing to say about whether those [Metropolitan Water Reclamation District] plants disinfect or not, as the current rules exist. We do not have to make a review or decision because it just is what it is. The rest of the state, that is our ongoing review and decision process,” Mosher says. 

Both the Illinois EPA and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District expect the disinfection debate to continue for several more months. If the Illinois Pollution Control Board decides to recommend reclassification of the Chicago Area Waterway System, the Illinois legislature will then have a chance to weigh in through an oversight committee.

In the meantime, Chicago’s reclamation district is planning to lobby in Springfield. There, the district hopes to recruit potential allies, such as business and manufacturing groups whose wastewater output would be more strictly regulated if the waterways are reclassified for recreational use. 

Illinois Issues, March 2010

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