Conservationists across the region have a reason to applaud.
On Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the creation of a new Chicago River Ecology and Governance Group. The group’s charter is to increase and connect quality habitat, improve water quality, and continue the river’s transformation into a 156-mile healthy blue/green corridor that is already having a profound positive effect on people and wildlife in Chicago, upstream and down. This complements the new conservation-based Chicago River Corridor Design Guidelines.
Already bounded by forest preserves, parks, and other public and privately held natural open space, the Chicago River system flows through some of the most important remaining natural areas in Illinois. The river provides a home to a wonderful variety of species including owls, osprey, mink, muskrats, beavers, bats, turtles, foxes, fish and coyotes — creatures whose lives depend on a healthy Chicago River system and its adjacent lands. Unfortunately, these natural landscapes often are limited in size, overrun with invasive plants, and fragmented by developed areas where riverbanks have been reconstructed as hard-edge seawalls — limiting the places where wildlife can find food, build nests, or seek refuge.
Embracing the Chicago River system as a natural resource, rather than a water feature or just a conduit to a stunning view of the city’s skyline, will provide wildlife with food, shelter, predator protection, and nesting areas. It will also promote biodiversity; improve climate resiliency; and reduce flooding, erosion, and the urban heat island effect, all while improving aesthetics, local economies, and quality of life for Chicago residents and visitors.
Right now, the City of Chicago is on a path of river improvement that began with the Clean Water Act and was catalyzed by improved water quality standards that call for our rivers to be clean enough for safe swimming and fishing. The city, through the Our Great Rivers initiative, endorsed a goal of having a river that is healthy for wildlife and safe for swimming by 2030. Not soon enough for us, and maybe crazy to others. But we are at a tipping point in the history of the river and its future impact on the city and the region.
The Chicago River has always been at the crux of the city’s growth and improvement, and its renaissance is a key part of a vibrant 21st Century Chicago. Creating the Chicago River Ecology and Governance Group to lead the implementation of projects and plans to meet these goals, across all government agencies, will ensure that people and wildlife continue to benefit as the Chicago River continues to improve.
We can’t wait to get started.
Margaret Frisbie is executive director of the Friends of the Chicago River.
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