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When can we swim in Chicago’s rivers? While it’s generally not a good idea to jump in today, activists hope we can swim in the rivers and canals that cut through the city within the next decade. 

CHICAGO — The Chicago River flows from the north suburbs through the heart of the city and to the south, but on a hot summer day there’s one thing you won’t see in it: swimmers.

Which is why José from the South Side asks: when can we swim in the Chicago River?

You may not see swimmers on the Chicago River today, but that wasn’t always the case. Swim marathons in the early 1900s went from Chinatown to downtown. Thousands of people would come out to watch as the swimmers went by.

Photo credit: Chicago History Museum/Chicago Sun-Times Collection

WGN spoke with some experts about the potential for swimming on the river in the future, and here’s what they had to say:

Margaret Frisbie, Friends of the Chicago River

We don’t recommend people just jumping in the Chicago River now. There are limited points along the river where it’s accessible, where there’s ladders and places to get out. There’s sailboats coming through and the tour boats and all the water taxis that we see.

But mostly we just really have to consider the water quality, which can change on a day-to-day basis. During rainstorms, it’s possible that we could have serious water pollution issues including sewage because our sewer system gets overwhelmed.

A boat travels down the Chicago River (Photo: Kevin Doellman)

On average, in 1970s and early-80s, there was sewage in the river every three days. We were using it as our sewer system. But most of the time on a day like today we’re comparable to cities like New York, Portland, Oregon, where people are swimming in their rivers on a regular basis.

In 1979, we couldn’t get near the water. Today it’s full of people, it’s full of fish, it’s full of wildlife, but we believe fundamentally the water is almost clean enough that people can swim in it regularly.

Jennifer Wasik, Scientist,  Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

The parameter that we look at is fecal coliform, which is an indicator bacteria that there could be sewage present in the water. There’s certain areas that meet that quite frequently and others that don’t, particularly after wet weather.

A lot of these waterways are either manmade or possibly man altered, and they were really designed to convey storm and sewer flows out of the city as quickly as possible, so they weren’t really designed for swimming.

But things are always improving. In the 1970s when the district first started, water quality monitoring was a lot different, and over the decades there’s been just a huge improvement.

We’ve had the Clean Water Act, industrial treatment — we now treat the water at our plants. And we have the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, so we have giant tunnels and reservoirs that are going online and decreasing the amount of combined sewer that flows into the system.

One of the tunnels that carries storm water away from Chicago through the Deep Tunnel project

Dave Olson, Kayak Chicago

I think it still has that stigma of being Chicago’s waste system. With all the initiatives that have been  taken to clean the river, I think that’s kind of a common goal — to get it to a point where it is a swimmable river again.

In years past, they would essentially wall off the back wall to the river ’cause no one wanted to see it ’cause it was more or less a sewage dumping area. Now as the revitalization of the river is coming back, and the animal species, the fish species, have come back to the river, they’re really trying to bring people back to the waterway. And then on top of that, recreation in the city has just boomed over the past 10 years.

The experts believe that 2028 is a good estimate of when the water quality will be good enough for swimming. You know it’s still a ways away, and there’s a lot that has to be done.

View of the Chicago River from Chinatown