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As heavy rains fall, sewage flows into the Chicago River — but we can stop it

A toxic mix of stormwater and sewage — called combined sewer overflow — flows from an "outfall" into the Chicago River. | Photo provided by Friends of the Chicago River

Since last Monday, millions of gallons of combined sewage and stormwater have been discharged into the Chicago River system from at least 85 locations throughout Chicago and Cook County, the result of our recent heavy rains.

This toxic mess introduces bacteria, viruses, garbage and industrial and commercial chemicals into the river. It is devastating to aquatic life, including the more than 70 species of fish that have no way to escape the pollution.

OPINION

Combined sewer overflows also endangers people, including the high-school aged athletes who are out on the water rowing daily with the onset of spring — regardless of the weather. During weeks like this, those teens are exposed to bacteria levels multitudes higher than is considered safe by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The recent heavy rains may be an indicator of weather to come. The National Climate Assessment released by the White House in November warns that global warming likely will result in the Midwest seeing more instances of heavy downpours.

But every large storm should not mean the introduction of sewage and litter in the river is imminent and automatic.

Our group, Friends of the Chicago River, has called on Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot to take on this problem directly and establish a policy of zero tolerance for sewage and litter in the river. This is a big promise and a long-term commitment that will require thoughtful, detailed and comprehensive planning and cooperation across county and municipal boundaries.

Yet, we know it is achievable and must be done if we want to follow federal law and make the river safe, clean and accessible to the millions of people who live here and the wildlife that depends upon it.

To achieve this goal, we call on Lightfoot to co-sponsor the development of a watershed-based regional green infrastructure plan. By working together with other municipalities, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the Chicago Park District, and other public and private land holders, we can used nature-based solutions to eliminate sewage and litter in our rivers. We can create wonderful, magical places that provide critical wildlife habitat, public open space and recreation opportunities while making our region more resilient to climate change.

Capturing stormwater in nature-based ways prevents litter from washing off our streets and allows rainwater to seep into the soil instead of into the sewer system — reducing flooding and basement back-ups too.

This year, Friends is celebrating its 40th anniversary and we are proud of how much healthier the river is after decades of effort. An ever-increasing community resource, the river is alive with fish, beavers, muskrats and turtles and tens of thousands of people hiking, biking, paddling, fishing, dining, working, living, or just hanging out.

But we know that we are not finished bringing our river back to life. We ask our incoming mayor to capitalize on the momentum by calling for an end to sewage and litter in our river for the benefit of us all.

Margaret Frisbie is executive director of the Friends of the Chicago River.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.