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Opinion: Delaying a bath or shower can make river cleaner

The Chicago River. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

People are familiar with Ozone Action Days — times when ozone levels are high and people should be cautious. They should also make themselves familiar with Overflow Action Days.

Overflow Action Days are days when the Chicago area has been hit with so much rain that people really should conserve water at home until the local sewer system has a chance to catch up with all the extra water. Overflow Action Days are important because if people don’t conserve water at home, our sewers back up and untreated sewage is released into Chicago area waterways, including the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.


While there has been dramatic improvement in the cleanliness of the Chicago River, it still faces daunting challenges, including the impact of combined sewer overflows. These overflows force untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris into the river, which exacerbates water pollution problems, makes people ill, and even kills fish and other wildlife.

When we built our sewer system more than 150 years ago, we mistakenly believed we could build enough pipes to hold all of our wastewater and rainfall. But as the Chicago region developed and our climate changed, the system has become permanently overwhelmed, causing consistent overflows into the Chicago River. In 2015 alone, there were 41 combined sewer overflows within the Chicago Area Waterways System. And research from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago revealed that as little as 0.3 inches of rain can trigger an overflow at one of the 300 outfalls that flow directly into the Chicago River and the Little Calumet River. With data showing that 100-year storms are happening every few years with harder, more concentrated rain, we are seeing more overflows than ever.

The data couldn’t be clearer: we must step in to help clean up our river.

Friends of the Chicago River has set a great example with its new partnership, Overflow Action Days, which, like Ozone Action Days, serve as a public reminder to reduce water use before, during and after heavy rains. Working with local elected officials, the MWRD and nonprofit partners like the Shedd Aquarium, Friends of the Chicago River encourages simple, everyday actions on Overflow Action Day, such as reducing shower times, flushing less and waiting to run the dishwasher. These actions reduce the amount of water added to the sewer system when it rains.

Also recommended are reducing our water footprints outside the house. Employing rain barrels, disconnecting downspouts, and installing permeable paving can retain hundreds more gallons of water onsite. And choosing to plant native plants over non-native plants allows their roots to infiltrate deeper into the soil, absorbing additional water while providing ancillary habitat benefits.

In the United States, an average household uses 400 gallons of fresh water per day. From a global perspective, this is shocking because fresh water only makes up 2.5 percent of our water resources. In the Chicago area, we can do better; by incorporating some of these easy efforts into our daily routine, collectively we can save tens of millions of gallons of water across the region every time it rains.

By working together to meet this goal, it is possible that one day we might be able to swim in the river.

Mike Quigley is the representative from Illinois’ Fifth Congressional District.