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Bubbly Creek’s fortunes might finally be on the rise

Jose Garcia has been fishing in Bubbly Creek for a decade. On a recent fall Sunday, the welder from Chicago Lawn pulled a fair-sized carp off one of the five fishing lines he’d set up on its banks.

On a good summer day, Garcia said, he could catch 10 to 15 carp from the waterway in Bridgeport and McKinley Park. “It’s not the cleanest place in the world, but what are you going to do?” he added.

That’s a question the Army Corps of Engineers has been trying to answer. Now, help finally may be on the way for the creek, whose foul history was memorialized in “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s expose on the Chicago meatpacking industry.

“It is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths,” Sinclair wrote of Bubbly Creek in his 1904 novel. “The creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily.”

The South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River is no longer the hellish landscape Sinclair saw; it still is marked, however, by its history as an open sewer for Chicago’s slaughterhouses.

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An ecosystem restoration project by the Army Corps of Engineers, authorized by Congress in 2005, seemed to offer vindication and relief to Bubbly Creek’s neighbors, who have worked to reclaim the stretch of waterway in the face of its environmental challenges.

That project stalled, however, in 2015. In the last days to submit comment on a study and set of recommendations for Bubbly Creek, the Army Corps of Engineers was told the Environmental Protection Agency was pursuing a Superfund project on the creek to clean up a site along Bubbly Creek where Peoples Gas turned coal into gas for home heating and other uses until the 1940s.

The Corps will restore ecosystems, but it won’t clean up a mess if someone else is still legally responsible. So it pulled the study, and Bubbly Creek and its supporters were left in the lurch.

“We were really enthusiastic and excited about their interest in [the project],” said Jenn Junk, the executive director and coach of Recovery on Water, a rowing team for breast cancer survivors that operates on Bubbly Creek. “With the cancellation of the study and essentially the Army Corps walking away from this, we were really discouraged.”

South Branch of Chicago River

The South Branch of the Chicago River; Bubbly Creek, the south fork of this branch, flows south from this point, on the right. | File photo

That situation appears to have changed.

In October 2017, the EPA announced it was moving Bubbly Creek off its Superfund list. Federal legislation that passed in late October of this year instructs the Army Corps and the EPA to reach an understanding and find a way to proceed with the project.

An EPA spokesman says that process should take a few months, after which the study will resume. If Congress signs off on the plans drawn up in the study, work can begin on the Bubbly Creek restoration project.

The cost? In 2014, the Corps of Engineers estimated it would be a little over $15 million.

“Sometimes it feels like this stuff takes so long to get done, but the fact is that it’s worth persevering. If we keep asking, and pushing, and pulling, and prodding, we’ll get this work done over time. And it really makes a tremendous difference,” said Margaret Frisbee, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River.

Tanveer Ali/Sun-Times.

“Strange Transformations” on Bubbly Creek

Bubbly Creek once ran through pristine prairie. Today, it divides the South Side neighborhoods of Bridgeport and McKinley Park.

The bubbles that give the stretch of water its name come from rotting organic matter — a reminder of the now-closed stockyards. After every usable piece of the animal was stripped in Chicago’s famously efficient and grisly slaughterhouses, what remained was often dumped into the waterway.

Today, the riverbed is covered in an 8-to-18-foot-deep mixture of soil, carcasses and other animal waste products, which release gases as they rot.

“From a general water quality point of view, [the gas] is not the worst thing in the world,” Frisbee said. “I mean, it’s not great.”

But the creek has other problems.

A pumping station at its mouth sometimes releases overflow from from the combined sanitary and storm sewer system into the creek. Though a new reservoir has helped with the sewer overflow, some residents say human feces still are occasionally seen in the water. And since the city reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900, the creek is practically stagnant.

The plan recommended in the draft study by the Corps would lay down a new, healthy creekbed above the rotting sediment. New plantings on the bottom of Bubbly Creek and along the riverbank would restore the base of the ecosystem and begin to improve water quality. Those plants, and woody debris spread in the creek, would provide habitats for returning animals.

Sewage discharge chute along Bubbly Creek

Sewer water is sometimes released into Bubbly Creek. | Brett Chase/Better Government Association

There are other legal avenues to a cleaner Bubbly Creek according to Mark Templeton, a University of Chicago law professor. Templeton’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic advocates for better water quality in Bubbly Creek and the rest of the Chicago River.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is considering renewing a permit that allows Chicago to continue unloading its sanitary sewers into the Chicago River. The new permit could demand stricter rules, Templeton said.

And the state sets water quality standards based on how people use each stretch of water. Bubbly Creek is rated for industrial uses. The Industrial Pollution Board, which sets the standards, could reconsider in light of the recreational activities being pursued on that part of the river.

Josh Ellis, a vice-president of the Metropolitan Planning Council who works on issues around Chicago waterways, says redemption for Bubbly Creek would send a message.

“If we can demonstrate to everyone that we can move forward on Bubbly Creek and restore Bubbly Creek to a healthy habitat and a great recreational amenity, it will demonstrate that we can do it pretty much anywhere, and that’s good for these other nooks and crannies in the river system,” Ellis said.

Down to the River

As different plans to clean up Bubbly Creek have started and stalled, more Chicagoans like Garcia have begun to make use of Bubbly Creek. Five rowing teams work out of the Eleanor Street Boathouse, which the Park District built along Bubbly Creek in 2016. The Chicago Maritime Museum opened upstream that same year.

The long neglect of the area also has its advantages.

“It’s a weird little place, but it’s also been left alone. It’s got wildlife like you wouldn’t believe,” Frisbee said.

Rowing teams can go out on Bubbly Creek without dodging the barges and recreational motorboats crowding more popular parts of the river, Recovery on Water’s Junk said, though they also avoid the creek after large rainstorms.

Jose Garcia, a welder from Chicago Lawn, fishes at Canal Origins Park at the mouth of Bubbly Creek. | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times

The public perception of Bubbly Creek posed a challenge to James Burns, the president of the South Branch Park Advisory Council, as he canvassed its neighbors about the uses they wanted to see for the Eleanor Street Boathouse.

“People would look at me with blank stares,” Burns said. “I quickly realized that people are so detached from that idea. You’re talking to people who have never done any sort of river activities, even though the river is a block from their home.”

Junk said views of Bubbly Creek tend to diverge.

“There’s one group of people — it’s not that they’ve given up on Bubbly Creek, but they think to themselves, it’s about as good as its going to get, and it’s way better than it used to be. And then there’s a school of thought, a population of people who regularly recreate on the river and are constantly advocating for how it could be greener,” Junk said.

“Its challenging, because I’d like to think that Bubbly Creek is not a hopeless cause, and I certainly think the Army Corps of Engineers are the right people to tell us if it is or not. But if they never finish the study, we’ll never know.”