Kathleen Behner got hooked on rowing six years ago when she joined a team of breast cancer survivors who regularly hit the Chicago River for therapy and camaraderie.

But rowing along a stretch of the river known as Bubbly Creek in Bridgeport also opened her eyes to the sometimes-disgusting river conditions. After a storm, condoms, syringes, women’s sanitary products and layers of feces floated on top of the water, inches from Behner and fellow rowers, many of whom have compromised immune systems.

“I didn’t know it was legal to dump raw sewage into the waterways,” she said.

It’s not only legal, city officials defend dumping as necessary to stop residential flooding.

But environmental and recreation groups say Chicago’s water management department needs to cut down on the sewage and storm water it releases into the river, and they want environmental regulators to toughen oversight of the city. Chicago has 184 pipes that dump stormwater and sewage directly into the river after heavy rains.

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The dumping is allowed through a “permit” from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, a state government agency. Now being considered for renewal, the permit calls for measures to reduce dumping, but exact pollution limits aren’t set because factors such as heavy rainfall can’t be predicted.

Critics say one of the problems with current (and proposed) guidelines is they don’t take into account that some stretches of the water being used for recreation – including Bubbly Creek – are filthy.

The permitting process is technical but boils down to a few simple facts:

The city operates a combined sewer system, meaning that whatever goes down the toilet or is washed off the street ends up in the same sanitizing treatment system. Rain overwhelms the system and wastewater is released through city pipes into the river. It’s a necessary process, Chicago officials say, to get rid of water that would otherwise find its way into homeowner basements.

State and federal environmental laws require Chicago to have a plan to eventually eliminate sewer discharges into the river through steps, including sewer infrastructure improvements and measures to reduce the flow of stormwater into the sewers. Every five years, the city applies for a permit that allows it to keep sending sewer water into the river as long there is a plan to reduce the flow. This leads to a key dispute, with recreation and environmental groups saying the city isn’t doing enough to limit the flow of sewage – especially in some portions – and the state’s EPA isn’t policing.

Among the changes the groups propose for the city’s river permit:

  • The city must be required to have its own long-term plan for eliminating all wastewater discharges into the river.
  • City boats should scoop floating solid waste in the river.
  • The city should recognize that almost the entire river is used for recreational uses that require clean water.
  • The rules need to set punishments for violations.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel champions use of the waterway, touting a downtown river walk and neighborhood boat launches. His latest boast is a stylish recreational facility near Bubbly Creek.

A mile-long stretch of the river south of downtown, Bubbly Creek is used by youth groups and other rowing clubs including Behner’s team of breast cancer survivors, Recovery on Water (ROW).

City water officials say they do plenty to keep the river clean. But they’re at odds with citizen proposals. Lawyers for ROW say some or all of the eight pipes that dump in or near Bubbly Creek should be closed because the heavy concentration of sewage in that one area potentially makes people sick. City officials say doing so would cause residential flooding.

The stakes are high for people who use the river for boating or other activities – a departure from past decades when the water was considered too toxic for recreational use (it was largely used for shipping or flow of sewage).

“People are boating and kayaking – traditionally they haven’t done that,” said Karen Hobbs, a senior policy analyst for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago. “We have to make sure the river is meeting water quality standards.”

For members of ROW, health is a primary concern. The women practice in Bubbly Creek because it lacks the heavy boat traffic farther north on the river and therefore provides a safe location for beginning rowers.

The IEPA, which enforces federal environmental laws, needs to exert its power, said Mark Templeton, director of the University of Chicago’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic. The clinic represents ROW and is part of an alliance of groups asking for more stringent rules for Chicago to follow.

“We Chicagoans have a tremendous natural resource and it is being used actively,” Templeton said. “It’s being used in all parts – even in areas people are thinking of as nasty backwaters.”

The state EPA received a large number of public comments about the river permit and they will be considered in the rules-making process, a spokeswoman said. The proposed changes to the permit, at this point, are “simply a draft,” she added.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, noting “substantial public interest,” told its state counterpart in a recent letter that it will weigh in on the final permit. The U.S. agency has final say on such rules. There is no deadline for completing.

Aaron Koch, deputy commissioner for sustainability at the city’s water management department, declined to comment. In a statement, the department said it’s “committed to continuing efforts to improve water quality and enhance stormwater management.”

public eye logo470x290This column – a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times web site – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase, who can be reached at bchase@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9033.