Chicago's Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) is one of a handful of U.S. treatment districts that doesn't disinfect its wastewater before discharging into local fresh water sources—and environmental groups aren't happy about it.

In July, the Alliance for the Great Lakes issued a report stating that Chicago must disinfect its wastewater effluent, or continue threatening public health by releasing bacteria and other disease-carrying agents into the Chicago River. The report was written in collaboration with the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Prairie Rivers Network, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“Protecting Public Health, Caring for Chicago's Waters: An Agenda for Action” states that MWRD could disinfect effluent water with UV technology for as little as $8.52 per person per year (MWRD serves about 9 million residents).

The report also notes that Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis, Tenn.; and St. Louis are the only other major cities that do not disinfect their wastewater, though they're expected to start doing so in the near future.

The Chicago River and other waterways in the river system were once considered waste-water conduits. Today, it's against federal law to use waterways for waste transport or assimilation. The majority of Chicago's waterway system (including the Chicago River, Lake Calumet, and parts of the Des Plaines River) is still considered unsafe for prolonged human contact. Yet studies show that more people are flocking to these waterways for recreation, regardless of public health warnings.

In a National Public Radio interview, Alliance president Cameron Davis acknowledged that the MWRD is complying with current regulations, but “the laws on the books are pretty weak. We want the EPA to put those requirements [to disinfect] in place,” says Davis.

The EPA has been working on it.

Several years ago the Illinois EPA (IEPA) conducted a Use Attainability Analysis, funded by a $450,000 U.S. EPA grant, to reassess waterway system uses and water quality criteria. A step toward putting new regulations in place, the study was initiated because the river system had improved enough, thanks to Clean Water Act regulations, to reevaluate its uses, says Toby Frevert, manager of IEPA's Division of Water Pollution Control.

IEPA created a draft in 2005 and has since been working on a new package of standards that is expected to be finalized after press time. The standards must then be approved by the Illinois Pollution Control Board.

The U.S. EPA also has had a say in the process. Its comments to the IEPA's 2005 draft included a recommendation to take into account increased recreational use of the waterways—i.e., boating, fishing, kayaking—that increases human contact of what's currently considered “un-recreational” water. The agency also requested that the IEPA provide documentation (methodologies, data, analysis, etc.) to support proposed standards that don't comply with recommendations.

“It's difficult to get a standards package adopted,” says Linda Holst, chief of the U.S. EPA's Water Quality Branch. It is especially difficult to determine standards for Chicago's complex waterway system. “It has an engineered system and it's channelized, so it's not your typical body of water.”

It is yet to be determined what the new standards will dictate—and if Chicago's MWRD will be required to disinfect wastewater. But environmental groups and the U.S. EPA are pushing for such regulations. Not surprisingly, the timing of the Alliance report's release coincides with the IEPA issuing key decisions about disinfection of the waterways.

As the Alliance report states: “For far too long we have looked at stretches of the Chicago Waterway System as places to avoid, rather than as places to fish, paddle, and congregate. That is the old way of looking at our waters and it needs to change.”