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EDITORIAL: Our two-tone Chicago River needs a lot more cleaning up

A view of Chicago River at Wolf Point Saturday. | Chris Fusco/Sun-Times

Back when Bubbly Creek was earning its name as a fetid backwater full of decaying stockyard offal that sent bubbles to the surface, most people averted their eyes from the Chicago River, of which the creek is a part.

But today’s Chicagoans, fond of their kayaks and riverfront condos, are far less willing to avert their eyes.

When a stark confluence of sharply contrasting river colors appeared off Wolf Point last weekend where the North and South branches meet — and a leak sent oil to the surface of Bubbly Creek a few days before that — everybody noticed.

We all wanted to know just what’s up with the river.


As it turns out, an explanation for our two-tone river — a teal hue flowing west from the lake meeting dark brown water flowing down the North Branch — proved to be pretty straightforward. The river water flowing from Lake Michigan ran between concrete walls, keeping it relatively clear, while the water coming down from the North Branch was compromised by mud and sewage during a heavy rain, giving it a murky, brownish color.

The sewage was released into the river at several points north and south of Wolf Point during the storm so as minimize the chance of flooding to buildings and streets.

Much has been done to improve sewage treatment and clean the Chicago River, but the public’s reaction to last weekend’s two-tone spectacle was a reminder to local elected officials that Chicagoans expect even more progress.

As the climate warms, the Chicago region can expect to see stronger storms that dump more water. The best response is “green engineering” — storing rainwater where it can be released slowly and treated, and promoting such simple technologies as permeable pavement, which allows water to soak into the ground instead of flowing directly into sewer systems.

And we can all do our part by sending less water — from our showers and dishwashers, for example — into sewers on “overflow action days,” when the region’s drainage system is at or above capacity.

Two-tone shoes can be charming. But a two-tone river? Not so much.

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