Friday, June 04, 2010

Go Jump In The Lake

Looking for a place to swim in Chicago? Go jump in the lake. Do not, under any circumstances, take a dip in the Chicago River.

The EPA has decreed that the city of Chicago must make its river swimmable. In theory, it sounds like a wise decision. Who doesn't want clean water?

In practice, the notion is impossible. The good folks at the EPA, you see, don't know much about Chicago history.

The Chicago River was a natural body of water when Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable and John Kinzie built lovely riverfront homes (i.e. shacks). There were fish swimming in the marsh-draining waterway, and once you filtered out the mud you could drink the murky water.

Then along came all those other people who used the river as rivers had been used for centuries. North and South Branches became sewers.

The water flowed away from the homes, carrying all manner of refuse with it. And it worked well for a time, until the population expanded. The amount of sewage increased, and with the Chicago River flowing into Lake Michigan, it was soon apparent that the river's pollution was poisoning the city's drinking supply.

Engineers are probably aware of the great feat that caused the river to flow backwards. By digging a canal and damming the river at the lakefront, the slow-moving sewer was re-directed to the south, to the Illinois and Mississippi. At the same time, the Chicago River was dredged and re-shaped to suit its new function.

Swim in the Chicago River? It is no longer a natural stream. It's been made into a drainage ditch, with steep sides that a swimmer cannot climb.

Care to back crawl around the barges? The south side of Chicago is an industrial area and plays host to a heavy amount of barge traffic. Not exactly conducive to a pleasant dip on a hot summer day. Anyone suggesting that such traffic be banned so that recreational users can have free access to the river will be looked upon as insane.

The Chicago River is not anywhere near as polluted as it used to be. There actually are fish in it, and people do go fishing. They take great care not to fall in, because they know they may not get out.

To suggest that the river be used for swimming is unrealistic. It's not the slow-moving stream draining the vast prairie any more. Kill some bacteria? Fine. Give kids the idea that they could swim in the river? A boy drowned recently. To imply that swimming might be feasible is to put naive little children at risk.

And don't even suggest cleaning up Bubbly Creek. That particular branch of the river, used as a sewer by the slaughterhouses for many years, might be better suited to a walking path than a swimming hole.

No comments: