How Far the River Has Come

When Friends of the Chicago River was founded in 1979 it was hard to imagine that one day the river would be alive with activity above and below the water and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would demand that the water be clean enough for swimming. Yet over the years because of Friends of the Chicago River and a wide variety of nonprofit partners, the Clean Water Act, and government agencies which have invested serious money in river improvement and access, the Chicago River is finally emerging the natural, recreational, and economic treasure it deserves to be.

Our once polluted and fenced off river now is home to over 70 species of fish and all kinds of other wildlife including beavers, muskrats, mink, snapping turtles, great blue heron and occasionally river otters. The numbers of water taxis, miles of river trail, and variety of restaurants are increasing every year and with the $100 million investment in the Chicago Riverwalk, by 2017 the river will likely become one of Chicago’s top tourist destinations. Additionally, river-edge development has opening up the riverbank to the public and just in Chicago alone more than 10 river-edge parks have been developed or improved to provide the public with opportunity to walk, hike, bike, paddle or just enjoy nature. There have also been literally thousands of new residences constructed along the river and downtown showpiece projects like 300 N. LaSalle and River Point are bringing Chicago’s top corporations to river’s edge and providing more space to enjoy the river.

Embedded in all of this effort is also the fact investing in the river pays us back. A study released by Friends of the Chicago River and Openlands last year revealed that for every $1 we spend on water quality improvement and public access we get $1.70 in return.

Friends vision is that the Chicago River will become one of the world’s greatest metropolitan rivers and we are now certainly well on our way.


Friends knowledge, perseverance, and leadership in engaging both the general public as well as stakeholders in the process have been instrumental in a numbers of successes including:

  • The establishment of new recreational water quality standards for the Chicago River system. That long-sought victory in 2011, which included the requirement of sewage effluent disinfection at two essential water reclamation plants on the system, was one of the most critical water quality improvements in Chicago River history.
  • A commitment to dam removal by the FPCC, MWRD, Niles Park District and the state that includes four dams on the North Branch that impede aquatic life and present hazards to recreational users.
  • The creation of miles of river-edge trail that can one day be linked by a master plan that connects them together and to other regional trails.
  • The installation of millions of dollars worth of stormwater Best Management Practices that protect the river from runoff pollution while providing habitat, improved public open space, and public education about the river and its value in the community.
  • Building  a case and strong public base of support for the river system decades before it was generally recognized as a regional recreational, natural, and economic resource, and laying the foundation for many of the critical investments which are underway today.

Friends is proud to have prevented the wholesale degradation of the Chicago River system as a part of the invasive species prevention strategies for Asian carp. When Asian carp DNA was first found in the Chicago River calls to close the lakefront locks and poison the Chicago River were put forth by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and supported by more than one environmental group. Friends stood strong and advocated for the protection of the Chicago River system as well as the lake, and the multi-billion dollar investments that we have made in the rivers already. As a result the protection of the Chicago River system is now mentioned specifically in all planning regarding invasive species control and its value to the region is expressed to the region.

Friends has consistently advanced progress and innovative river improvements. A good example of our influence is the many studies and reports we have produced as well as those to which we contributed. This work has led to or is contributing now to real and permanent improvement. Select studies and reports include:

  • Circa 1998: Nature and the River (Friends and partners)
  • Circa 1998: People and the River (Friends and partners)
  • Circa 1998: Voices of the Watershed (Friends and partners)
  • 1999: Chicago River Corridor Design Guidelines (Drafted by Friends)
  • 2000: Waterways for Our Future (Friends and partners)
  • 2002: North Branch Dam Removal Feasibility Study (Friends)
  • 2004: Monitoring the Chicago River: A Tool for Assessing Improvement (Friends and partners)
  • 2005: North Branch Open Space Plan (Friends and partners)
  • 2006: Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Chicago River Agenda (Influenced)
  • 2007: The 25th Anniversary Action Plan for the Chicago River (Friends)
  • 2013: Our Liquid Asset: The Economic Benefits of a Clean Chicago River (Friends and partners)
  • 2014 FPCC Next Century Plan (Influenced)
  • 2014: MWRD Land Use Plan (Friends and partners)
  • 2015: Uncovering Gullies (Friends)

Select outcomes from these studies and reports include:

  • The dam feasibility study informed the dam removal process in Illinois and led MWRD engineers to consider removing or modifying the North Branch Dam. In January 2015, the MWRD board voted in support of removal.
  • Waterways for the Future triggered the Illinois EPA water quality standards Use Attainability Analysis.
  • The North Branch Open Space Plan changed policy and protected land through the North Branch sub-watershed, preserving and improving natural areas and the river.

General operating funds strengthen Friends’ public policy and planning efforts that result in long term and systemic solutions to the river’s complex problems and to respond to real issues in real time the way we had to when in 2010 the U.S. Army Corps proposed poisoning the river as a long term control plan for Asian carp.