Excerpt from Chapter 2-Chicago: A City in a Garden
Restoring the Chicago River
‚??It was nice it was a lot of fun. I love going through the city like that!‚?Ě
‚??There‚??s no other race where you can go through and see all the skyscrapers and things like that. It‚??s different. It‚??s cool.‚?Ě
‚??I‚??d say it‚??s just exploring Chicago and it‚??s a nice day. It‚??s fun and you get to see it from a different vantage point!‚?Ě
‚??A great day and a great river!‚?Ě
‚??Canoeists after a day on the Chicago River
Margaret Frisbie remembers the time she threw a barbecue for friends and colleagues who work with her grassroots organization. ‚??I was setting up our picnic in a park, unloading bags of charcoal, and some people wandered by and asked me what I was doing. ‚??We‚??re having a barbecue for Friends of the Chicago River,‚?? I told them. And they looked and at me and said, ‚??Oh, that‚??s great, but where is the Chicago River?‚?? I pointed over my shoulder. The river was flowing right past us in that park and they didn‚??t know it. That‚??s the problem we face every day. People don‚??t know that Chicago even has a river! And you can‚??t save what you don‚??t know.‚?Ě
Frisbie‚??s job is to help change all that. She‚??s fond of telling people that the river everyone takes for granted is the reason Chicago exists at all. In general humans have always been drawn to watery locations, intuitively grasping that these places best supported life. The original settlers selected Chicago‚??s site because it was close to major waterways. But the river today looks nothing like the wilderness Marquette and Joliet would have seen as they paddled their fur-laden canoes in the seventeenth century. But nor does the river look as it did in the 1970s either, and Friends of the River has had a lot to do with that.
The river‚??s rebirth began in 1979, after a local magazine railed about the river‚??s sorry state. ‚??It was a complete dump,‚?Ě confesses Frisbie. ‚??What you‚??d see what pretty despicable.‚?Ě
Even from the city‚??s earliest days, people and businesses dumped garbage and sewage into the river. The water whisked it out of sight and mind. At that time, the river flowed north and emptied into Lake Michigan, from which Chicago drew its drinking water. As the city grew in population, city officials realized that this practice was untenable. In 1900, a massive engineering project reversed the river‚??s flow, now sending water down the Mississippi River. This was fine for Chicago, but bad for its neighbors downriver who complained about the refuse that now flowed past them on the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
As late as the 70s, the river continued to be a site of illegal dumping. Rusty chain-link fences and concrete walls obscured river access. ‚??Because it was so unpleasant, it was barred off,‚?Ě recalls Frisbie. Sewage treatment plants had cleaned up their act, but still did damage. Runoff, treated with chlorine, destroyed plant and animal life. If you had been nutty enough to paddle down the river back then, you would have felt like you were coasting down a stinking no man‚??s land littered with trash and overrun with weeds. Wildlife was exceedingly rare.
Friends of the River took a look at all this, and dreamed of a 156-mile river park, flowing past 50 or so towns in the Chicago area. They tackled the work on two fronts‚??a physical clean-up job and legislative efforts to get scofflaws to stop dumping trash on riverbanks or pollutants into the water.
Easier said than done. As Steve Packard knew, the native plant species had been beaten back over the years by exotic plants that were brutally tenacious. Friends of the River began recruiting people out to the river on weekends to help cut down invasive trees and replace it with native vegetation. It was slow, painstaking work. Local groups interested in wildlife, environment, and activities for children invited Friends out to their meetings to talk about their work. Slowly, momentum built. Some groups signed on to ‚??adopt-a-river;‚?Ě they‚??d promise to clean up a specific site through all four seasons. If something was awry, they immediately reported it. Along the way, they mapped out walking trails, put up interpretive signs, and knit that piece of the river into their daily lives.
During that time, the federal government also got stricter. The Clean Water Act, signed in 1972 by President Nixon, put severe limits on waterway dumping. Previously, we thought nothing of dumping factory effluent into rivers to be washed out to sea. As a result of this legacy, our waterways were in the most outrageous ways. The Cuyahoga River caught fire. Lake Erie was declared dead, unable to support marine life. In drier regions, the carcasses of dead wildlife littered the banks of small streams and arroyos, where creatures had drunk their last. The Clean Water Act required anyone who released water into a stream to get a permit and to treat the waste before releasing it at all. For many, the cost of such treatment was too much to bear, and it forced them to become more efficient about how they ran their operations. When sewage treatment plants stopped putting chlorine in the water they released, nature rebounded. Fish and became more noticeable, and birds tended to linger.
As the river began looking better, people wanted access to it. Some of the old fencing was torn down to provide access for recreational groups. Today high school and college rowing teams use the river regularly. A canoe and kayak rental company has sprung up along the path. The city‚??s park department is busy buying up parcels of land to incorporate into the grand vision of a river park. And some developers have actually built condos emphasizing the river view.
Today Friends of the River holds events during the year to introduce newcomers to the river and welcome back old friends. Chicago River Day, held in May, is a one-day clean-up blitz. The Chicago River Flatwater Classic, held in August, is a river race for paddlers. Another favorite is the ‚??Voyageur‚?Ě race, featuring huge, 25-foot canoes modeled after the ones used by Marquette and Joliet.
As someone who knows the river in all its seasons, Frisbie can tell you that there‚??s more work to be done. Concrete walls and stands of buckthorn still block access in spots. The river teems with sixty-eight species of fish, but some of them are exotics, and anglers are still warned not to eat their catch. ‚??All in all,‚?Ě she says, ‚??it‚??s the beginning of what could be wonderful.‚?Ě
Today there are rumors that otters have returned to the river. If true, it would be a tremendous harbinger, since otters require slightly purer water conditions than other mammals. For a while now, Friends of a River has had to teach people how to behave around beaver, which have returned to the river in startling numbers. ‚??There were no beavers years ago,‚?Ě Frisbie gushes, ‚??but to hear that they‚??re back and to watch out, because if you plant some trees a beaver might come along and chew on them, is fantastic!‚?Ě