Pollution of U.S. Waterways and the Devastation it Causes: Chicago Wastewater

In the U.S. alone over two-thirds of estuaries and bays suffer from phosphorus and nitrogen pollution, and the Mississippi river alone feeds almost 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollutants to the Gulf of Mexico each year. One of the primary sources of both nitrogen and phosphorus pollution can be traced back to untreated wastewater that overflows into our waterways from treatment plants across the country. Based upon statistics from GulfBase, an organizational page connecting information concerning the Gulf of Mexico and the environment surrounding the Gulf, Illinois is one of the main contributors of both nitrogen and phosphorus to the system, as the compounds flow through the rivers into the Mississippi river. Majority of the pollution can be tracked back to one place in Illinois, the Chicago area.

The Chicago area has historically been known to dump wastewater into prominent waterways such as Lake Michigan and the Chicago river, adding even more pollutants unknowingly after heavy rains from the debris and chemicals that line the roads and buildings. While measures have been taken to help prevent overflow of the sewage treatment plants, such as the 1970’s “TARP” plan which diverted overflow from rainwater and other causes to underground storage tanks for later filtration, Chicago is still pumping out almost 333 million gallons on non disinfected wastewater into the waterways every day. This can be tied to how both at Federal and State levels, Chicago was exempted from doing the last step, instead releasing the waters back into the Chicago river.

 What does this mean?

The pollution of the Chicago river has a devastating effect on the wildlife and the ecosystem surrounding it. The Chicago river drains into several smaller ones that feed to the Mississippi river and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. Here we can see some of the greatest effects of the pollution. As the pollution tampers with the water some species are being driven from the shorelines where they reproduce, such as salmon, which are having to travel further upstream to find fresh water, which they need in order to reproduce.

Salmon swimming upstream for reproduction.

Algae is a major problem, as phosphorus is one of the main nutrients they feed off of. Algae takes over the area in which it inhabits, totally and completely draining nutrients from the water, rendering it a “dead zone” that can span several miles, currently over 7,000 miles of water in the Gulf of Mexico are covered in these dead zones. These dead zones heavily impact the movements of fauna, and can kill of large amounts of natural flora, such as trees and water-loving plants like reeds and marsh pads. the dead zones are low oxygen containing areas, preventing fish and other water life from being able to breathe and properly sustain blood flow. These zones are tied closely to human wastewater, as it is their primary cause, an extreme example of harmful algae bloom is the recent Lake Erie algae spread, where the water has developed a slime like film of algae on the water.

Algae bloom on the surface of Lake Erie, described as being a slime-like film.

Along with the native fauna and flora that are held at risk from this dumping of waste, the tourist trade also suffers. With the loss of unique species due to water pollution and habitat loss, many of the natural tourist destinations along the rivers are put at risk, as the ecosystems are not able to sustain the vast increase in nutrients and toxins that are flowing through them. These locations can carry diseases due to the bacteria introduces, resulting in waterways being deemed unfit for recreational use.

With tourism on the rise, the importance of the waterways as a place of recreational activities, such as kayaking and swimming, is rising. The Chicago River is being commercially used now more than ever, encouraging people to kayak or canoe on its waters, as the ability to inform people about any new threats in the water quality and is able to inform people about how high the toxin levels are. The general public is warned to not swim or kayak in the river or its branches after a rainstorm, as pollutants and trash is washed from the roads and buildings into the waterway. This causes a huge spike in toxicity levels, rendering it unsafe for public use.

Companies encourage the clean technologies, trying to thus encourage the “second lakefront” business boom, without the safe waters, companies such as kayak rental stores, and the ones lining the Riverwalk, which has recently been redone, would suffer from the lack of tourism, resulting in them having to shut down.

The Source of the Problem

Chicago’s water system, built-in the 1800’s. was a response to the outbreaks of cholera, influenza and typhoid fever that had occurred in the city, which many had pinned on the large number of immigrants living in the city. When it was built initially, it was a series of tunnels, leading out to Lake Michigan and it’s connected waterways. When the population rose to the point where this simple system was unable so sustain the number of people living within the city, various wastewater treatment facilities were built (this occurred during and around the 1930’s).

Up until this point the city had been dumping 8,500 gallons of wastewater per second into the lake, this resulted in the city being sued by several states including, but not limited to: Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan. This resulted in several other hearings and lawsuits forming, eventually causing the city to reroute the wastewater downstream to prevent the mixing of drinking water and sewage.

Even with all of the lawsuits, expansions, and other changes that have occurred, the currently 2.3 billion gallon tank capacity for the wastewater treatment still proves to not be enough, as the tanks still overflow when there is heavy rainfall. There is currently a plan in action, conducted by the Chicago Area Waterway System that introduces a much higher capacity for wastewater, upwards of 27 billion gallons, in storage facilities, to prevent the overflow from continuing. This project, however, will not be completed until approximately 2024, which means that, we could expect millions of more gallons of waste to enter the waterways before the project has been completed.

There have been other suggested solutions for this issue, but one in particular sticks out to me. The solution in mind?  Fertilizer.

With the introduction of new technologies, and new methods of transforming chemicals and toxins into useful nutrients, companies such as Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, have been able to successfully transform the waste into pellet fertilizers that can be used to feed gardens and farm land. The company has already signed an agreement with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, who runs the Stickney plant, one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the metropolitan area. The MARD is currently undergoing several legal cases, concerning environmental groups who want tighter regulation on how the wastewater is treated and dispersed. When asked about how they are already taking action, rather than waiting for the courts to decide which action should be taken the District’s executive director had this to say, “Usually utilities don’t do anything until the courts or the permit writers tell us what to do. I don’t think legal battles should paralyze us or prevent us from continuing to improve.”

Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies hopes that they will be able to reduce the phosphorus output in the city by around 30%, and generate over 10 thousand tons of fertilizer per year, substantially reducing the amount of waste released into the surrounding ecosystem. ONRT has already set up several production plants in the U.S., and realizes just how beneficial, not only to the environment this is, but how it can benefit humans as well. The video below has one of the company’s Chief Technology Officers, Ahren Britton, explaining the nutrient recovery process at the facility, and how waste is turned into fertilizer at their plants.



Kennedy, an environmentalist who finds this idea promising, and has been a supporter in the matter states the facts as they are, “We’re going to run out of phosphorus probably in 30 to 50 years. So here’s a way that we can produce it locally, at the sewage treatment plant, and then we can use it in a way that does not make it down to the Gulf of Mexico.”. Farmers use phosphorus in their fields, as it is a vital nutrient in the life cycle of crops such as wheat and corn, the farmers purchase the nutrient in bulk, and then spread it over their crops, but this can get expensive.

A sample of the slow release pellet form fertilizer produced at ONRT.

Comparing the facts of how ““Phosphorus traditionally was very expensive and very difficult for these particularly small communities to remove. It cost millions and millions of dollars a year.” (Kennedy on the topic of phosphorus removal), the idea that we may be able to rid ourselves of two issues that our country faces, one that is detrimental to the environment, and the other that is a hassle for people, is nothing short of amazing. By “reusing” the phosphorus that our bodies naturally produce, we lessen the need for harvesting phosphorus, and lessen the impact that our waste has on the environment.


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Anon. n.d. “Disinfection Dissatisfaction.” Disinfection dissatisfaction – Illinois Issues – A Publication of the University of Illinois at Springfield – UIS. Retrieved December 12, 2016 (http://illinoisissues.uis.edu/archives/2010/03/canal.html).

Hawthorne, Michael. 2015. “Chicago River Still Teems with Fecal Bacteria, Tests Show.” chicagotribune.com. Retrieved December 12, 2016 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-chicago-river-bacteria-20150827-story.html).

Hawthorne, Michael. 2015. “Chicago River Still Teems with Fecal Bacteria, Tests Show.” chicagotribune.com. Retrieved December 12, 2016 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-chicago-river-bacteria-20150827-story.html).

Hawthorne, Michael. 2016. “Chicago River Cleanup Makes Waterway Safer for Recreation.” chicagotribune.com. Retrieved December 12, 2016 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/ct-chicago-river-bacteria-cleanup-20160318-story.html).

Anon. n.d. “Salmon Reproduction.” Salmon: Reproduction. Retrieved December 12, 2016 (http://www.marinebio.net/marinescience/05nekton/sarepro.htm).

Anon. n.d. “Turning Wastewater into Fertilizer, MWRD Plant Battles Nutrient Pollution.” Chicago Tonight | WTTW. Retrieved December 12, 2016 (http://chicagotonight.wttw.com/2016/05/24/turning-wastewater-fertilizer-mwrd-plant-battles-nutrient-pollution).

Anon. n.d. “Wastewater Management in Chicago, Illinois.” Citizen Science: Great Lakes Wastewater Management. Retrieved December 12, 2016 (http://www.macalester.edu/academics/environmentalstudies/students/projects/urbanwastewaterwebsite/chicago.html).



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