Durbin announces $1 million in federal funds to restore South Branch of Chicago River

The money is set to go toward habitat rehabilitation and study in addition to creating natural community spaces.

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A kayaker goes down a portion of the south branch of the Chicago River July 22, 2022. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced $1 million in federal funds dedicated to restoring parts of the south branch earlier that day.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced $1 million in federal funds dedicated to restoring parts of the South Branch of the Chicago River.

Zack Miller/Sun-Times

Upton Sinclair once called the South Branch of the Chicago River a “great open sewer” — now it’s where Shedd Aquarium researchers and Chicago Park District employees plan to spend $1 million in federal funds conserving wildlife and making community spaces.

“The science says there’s tremendous reason for hope,” Bridget Coughlin, president and CEO of the Shedd Aquarium, said during a news conference Friday in Bridgeport. “This part of the river is uniquely positioned to repopulate native fish species.”

A portion of the South Branch was once nicknamed Bubbly Creek because pockets of gas would rise from the pollution — largely caused by nearby industry and the city’s sewer system flooding it with runoff — at the bottom of the river.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced $1 million in federal funds for conservation and restoration of the south branch of the Chicago River July 22, 2022 at Park 571 in Bridgeport. The water near Park 571 has historically been polluted due to industry in the area.

The South Branch of the Chicago River has historically been polluted by industry.

Zack Miller/Sun-Times

Researchers plan to use part of the grant money to track fish populations and behaviors in addition to creating floating wetlands — clusters of coconut husk where native plants can be grown on the river — and improving fish breeding areas, according to Austin Happel, a research biologist with the Shedd.

Happel described the area as a “biodiversity hotspot” despite the pollution, saying abandoned barge slips have become spawning spots for a number of local fish due to an abundance of plants along the shores.

Wildlife in the area still faces the presence of wastewater runoff that “flushes the system clean of all life” for two weeks after intense rains, according to Happel. He said the work done with the federal grant, in addition to the city’s Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, could help offset this damage.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin joined representatives from the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago Park District and local officials at Chicago Park 571 to announce the grant.

But it isn’t just about the fish.

In addition to restoring ecosystems and studying them, the groups plan to create communal spaces and help fund organizations like the Audubon Society to create more training opportunities for the next generation of conservationists.

Tiffany Sostrin, director of legislative and community affairs for the Chicago Park District, said there’s also an angle of equity to the project.

“We know that many communities of color have been dumping grounds for pollution,” Sostrin said. “It’s great to bring us full circle. Every community deserves beautiful spaces, every community deserves clean rivers and lakes and places to recreate.”

Isaiah Ballinger, the natural areas manager with Chicago Park District, shows U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin what the $1 million in federal grants dedicated to restoring the south branch of the Chicago River will be used for on a map of the Bridgeport area July 22, 2022.

Isaiah Ballinger, natural areas manager with the Chicago Park District, shows U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin plans for restoring the South Branch of the Chicago River.

Zack Miller/Sun-Times

In addition to the existing boathouse, a community gathering space and nature play space have been planned at Park 571 with help from the federal grant, according to Isaiah Ballinger, the natural areas manager with the Chicago Park District.

“This is really about community,” said Rosa Escareño, the park district’s superintendent and CEO. “When we talk about environmental justice, this is exactly it.”

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