Chicago Area Waterway System / Chicago River
Over 100 miles of rivers and canals form the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS), which connects Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River via the Lower Des Plaines and Illinois rivers. The CAWS includes the Chicago River, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Calumet Rivers.
The CAWS once served strictly as a barge highway and open sewer to carry waste away from Lake Michigan. In the last 20 years, kayaking, canoeing, boating and jet and water skiing have become popular activities on the CAWS, while residential, retail and restaurant developments have popped up along the banks. These new uses have prompted a decade-long debate on improving water quality in the CAWS and Lower Des Plaines River.
June 2013: Motion to Enter Decree
On June 7, 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of EPA and the State of Illinois, filed a motion asking the federal district court in Chicago to approve a December 2011 consent decree with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD). The settlement will protect public health and improve water quality by capturing high flows of storm water and wastewater from the combined sewer system that serves Chicago and 51 surrounding communities.
The decree requires MWRD to meet an enforceable schedule to complete a tunnel and reservoir plan (known as the Deep Tunnel or TARP). By 2017, MWRD is required to add 8.3 billion gallons of storage capacity -- more than quadrupling its current capacity and significantly reducing combined sewer overflows. All remaining work on TARP required under the consent decree must be completed by 2029.
The decree requires MWRD to distribute rain barrels in urban neighborhoods and to install permeable pavement, green roofs, rain gardens and other green infrastructure measures throughout the MWRD service area. MWRD will prioritize projects to reduce flooding and basement backups, with the highest priority given to neighborhoods where the socio-economic need is greatest. MWRD is also required to develop a comprehensive land use policy to implement green infrastructure on MWRD-owned properties.
The consent decree also requires MWRD to pay a civil penalty of $675,000. The settlement is not final or enforceable unless and until it is approved by the Court.
After publishing the proposed decree in the Federal Register on Dec. 22, 2011, the government received ten sets of public comments. Some groups that provided comments sought permission to intervene in the case. The court granted groups including the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., the Prairie Rivers Network and the Sierra Club permission to intervene.
May 2012: EPA Supports Strong Water Quality Standards to Protect Public Health
EPA has completed its review of Illinois' September 2011 submission of new and revised water quality standards for the CAWS and Lower Des Plaines River. EPA's May 2012 action letter includes the approval of new recreational uses for 8 segments and the disapproval of recreational use downgrades for 4 segments. The May 2012 and November 2011 actions, together, complete EPA's review of Illinois' September 2011 submission.
- May 2012 Action Letter to Illinois EPA on CAWS & LDPR water quality standards
- Summary of EPA's actions on Illinois' new and revised water quality standards for the CAWS and LDPR
- Basis for U.S. EPA’s decision
- Map of Effective Water Quality Standards for CAWS and Lower Des Plaines River
December 2011: Settlement to Reduce Pollution from Sewage Overflows and Protect Public Health
EPA, the Department of Justice, and the State of Illinois announced a Clean Water Act settlement with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago to resolve claims that untreated sewer discharges were released into Chicago-area waterways during flood and wet weather events.
- U.S. Clean Water Act Settlement in Chicago to Reduce Sewage Overflows Dec. 14, 2011 news release
November 2011: Upgraded Water Quality Standards for Portions of the CAWS
EPA approved the State of Illinois' new and revised water quality standards for five segments of the Chicago and Calumet Rivers. As a result of EPA's action, after almost a decade of debate, Illinois adopted water quality standards to protect primary contact recreational uses of the waterway - such as kayaking, canoeing, boating and jet and water skiing.
- U.S. EPA approves new water quality standards for Chicago River System Nov. 7, 2011 news release
- Action Letter to Illinois EPA on Chicago Area Waterway Water Quality Standards - November 2011
- Chicago Area Waterway Determination Letter
- EPA: Upgraded Water Quality Standards Needed for Portions of Chicago Area Waterway System May 12, 2011 news release
- Printable Map of Waterway Segments Subject to Primary Contact Recreation Determination
- Summary of Annual Sewer Rates for Selected Cities as revised May 19, 2011