As Capt. Pat Harrison launched on the Sanitary and Ship Canal in September, he said, “Whenever I played by the river, my mother would say, `Whatever you do, don’t touch the water, you will get polio,’ It blows my mind to catch fish where my mother said not to touch the water.”

That’s primary contact.

Decades ago, Harrison swam off the abutment by the “Jackknife Bridge,” just downstream of the Daley Launch.

I grew up swimming creeks where Holstein cows were pooping. Who am I to wonder why people want to swim in the Chicago River?

With curiosity as much as anything on Thursday, I attended the 2017 Chicago River Summit, “Swimming the Distance: How Do We Get from Here to There?’’ put on by Friends of the Chicago River at MillerCoors on the east side of the South Branch at Jackson.

Scene from MillerCoors during the 2017 Chicago River Summit: A gull coasting through the window reflection while cars drive orver the bridge and people scurry on.
Credit: Dale Bowman

I expected the pipe dream of do-gooders. It was much more. Public swimming in the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) will be here. Very soon.

“It turned from an `if’ to a `how-and-now’ conversation,’’ said Richard Wilson, city design director, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, during the closing panel.

That’s key: Swimming is here for CAWS.

The holdup isn’t water quality, but the mechanics of swimming an urban waterway and public perception.

On mechanics, Jessica Dexter, attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, began her presentation, “When I started a decade ago, giving a talk on swimming would have gotten me laughed out of the room. Swimming does not seem so far fetched any more.’’

But there are legal questions, as well as water-quality and access ones.

As to legal, fishable and swimmable were goals from the Clean Water Act. The fishing side has made tremendous gains.

“Swimmable is shorthand for support recreation in and on the water,’’ Dexter said.

Paddling has been going on for years. Swimming is next and legally attainable.

But, as Dexter noted, “Does the public have the right to swim in Illinois? Probably not.’’

Illinois having the most bizarre water-rights laws in the United States, as fishermen, boaters and paddlers can attest, only complicates that.

She said the public having a right to use the water is different than a landowner opening up it to swimming. Then there is the beach license and requirements from the Illinois Department of Health.

In terms of water quality? On most days, it is good to go.

“So if you want to go swimming, just do it; but there are other dangers in the CAWS,’’ said David St. Pierre, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Dangers include high banks, heavy boat traffic, undertows and sediment issues.

Otherwise, he presented encouraging news on water quality.

The sticker is minds.

“The psychological battle is just as important as the scientific battle,” said Willie Levenson, ring leader for the Human Access Project in Portland, Oregon.

That was key in his presentation on opening up, innovatively, the Willamette River to public swimming and water use.

Back to the Chicago River, Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the Friends, said in the panel, “The river is clean enough to recreate. . . . We need to change the public perspective.’’

Josina Morita, a commissioner for Water Rec, said many incisive things during the panel, the one that stuck was, “My greatest fear is people seeing the river as a tool for gentrification.’’

That’s for another day.

Slide during the 2017 Chicago River Summit of proposed signs, from the Human Access Project in Portland, Oregon, for opening up swimming and water access to the Willamette River.
Credit: Dale Bowman