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Editorial: Cleaner waterways get needed boost

Veterans injured Iraq Afghanistan learn adaptive kayaking river2011 Wounded Warrior Adventure Sports Camp Aug. 19. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan learn adaptive kayaking on the riverat the 2011 Wounded Warrior Adventure Sports Camp Aug. 19. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 10, 2011 2:42PM

After years of debate and little progress, public policy
on Chicago area waterways suddenly is flowing in the right direction.

In June, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District voted to start disinfecting wastewater from its North Side and Calumet water reclamation plants by 2015. The waterways will be much more inviting once the contents no longer are partially treated sewage.

Earlier this month, the district set aside $1 million for “green infrastructure” to support a variety of ways — such as permeable pavement and rain gardens — to capture rainwater before it flows into overburdened sewers. That will help keep untreated sewage from flowing into the waterways in heavy storms.

And most recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday announced a $16 million plan for four new boathouses along the Chicago River that will give canoers and kayakers better access to the river. Along with the new boathouses, bike paths and other improvements will be added along the banks.

“The truth is, because of our lake, we’ve only thought of it as our front yard. I now want to turn our attention to our backyard and have that same vision [for] neighborhoods that don’t have a front yard just on the lake,” Emanuel said. “I want that river to be for all of us what the lake has been.”

We’re pleased to see Emanuel is, like Mayor Richard M. Daley before him, a strong advocate for cleaner waterways. Other agencies and officials have been key as well: The MWRD vote was prompted in part by clean-water advocates elected to the board and by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency letter urging state agencies to require the disinfection. Credit also goes to Illinois’ two senators, Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, and U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, who said they’d push for federal money for the upgrade, and to Gov. Pat Quinn.

It’s a long time since the Chicago River was so foul that its tributary Bubbly Creek was named for the gases escaping carcasses dumped from the old Union Stockyards. But the improvements haven’t kept up with the growing number of boaters who can be seen propelling sculls, canoes and kayaks along the area’s waterways.

We’ve long argued that cleaner waterways are a key to Chicago’s future as a post-industrial environmentally friendly city.

It’s good to see we’re getting closer to that goal.

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