Sewers from the Union Stockyards flow directly into the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River in 1924. (Photo from "The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond" by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams)
No one likes to let go of a good image, which explains why you may have seen references lately to the Chicago River as "an open sewer."
But the real open sewer has been gone for years.
Here's how Upton Sinclair described Bubbly Creek, which flows into the river, back in 1906: "A great open sewer . . . constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans were disporting themselves in its depths . . . Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens will walk on it, feeding . . . every now and then the surface would catch fire."
Yes, the river's water today is 70 percent sewage effluent. But effluent is treated wastewater, not raw sewage as it was back in the days when Chicago knew how to operate a genuine open sewer. (Days when heavy rains overwhelm the system are an exception.)
Also, by the end of next year effluent disinfection is scheduled to start at two Metropolitan Water Reclamation District plants -- Northside and Calumet.
The kayakers probably will like the cleaner water. But it won't do much for novelists.
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