As a kid, Gary Mechanic didn't think twice about playing along the banks of the Chicago River, just a half block from his home, despite the sewage and industrial runoff that fouled the waterway when it rained. He remembers when the Fox River farther west was so polluted it was rare to see people canoeing or fishing.
Today, he is paddling rivers that have undergone dramatic yet incomplete transformations as cities throughout Illinois spend hundreds of millions of dollars to stop sewage from pouring into them during heavy rains.
"I've seen a lot of changes in the rivers around here," said Mechanic, a partner in a new canoe livery along the Fox River in Aurora. Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it's time to fix the problem once and for all, even as most local governments face difficult budget problems.
Communities from Chicago to Belleville to Galesburg to Peoria have been ordered to deal with antiquated sewer systems, many built more than 100 years ago, that route sewage and stormwater through the same pipes. During heavy rains, that means bacteria-laden water pours into rivers, streams and lakes, making waterways unsafe for swimming and other recreational activities.
Overflows occur in 121 Illinois communities. They fouled 250 miles of rivers and streams from 2006 through 2008, according to the Illinois EPA. Chicago's system also dumps untreated sewage into Lake Michigan during heavy storms.
The federal government has ordered cities to develop plans for how they will limit overflows to no more than four per year or capture 85 percent of the volume when the systems do overflow. Most plans must be completed by the end of September, to be implemented over a specific time period, sometimes up to two decades.
For Chicago, the solution already includes cavernous underground tunnels that hold stormwater until it can be pumped to a treatment plant. Belleville is using large lagoons to do the same thing. Galesburg has four remote treatment facilities to help during storms, and is separating the pipes that carry sewage and stormwater.
Communities that don't have approved plans -- 43 in Illinois -- are feeling increasing pressure from state and federal environmental officials to get them done, including violation notices sent to 13 of them, most within the past two years, Illinois EPA officials said.
"We put a high priority on this because it goes to a number of different issues, including public health, the health of the river system and recreational uses," said Bruce Yurdin, who manages the Illinois EPA's field offices across the state.
Fixes won't be cheap, and will require many communities to take out loans and raise sewer and water rates to pay for them. But advocates say the high price is an investment with big payoffs for the environment, public health and the economy.
Chicago already has spent $3 billion on improvements over the past four decades -- including tunnels up to 35 feet in diameter -- but still has not stopped the overflows. It plans to spend $1 billion more to build two reservoirs, expected to be completed in 2029, to help.
The city of Belleville plans to spend $88 million -- and likely raise sewer and water rates over the next 20 years to pay for it -- to send overflows to two large lagoons where it can be held until it can be treated. Overflows go into a creek that isn't a recreational waterway. But the creek empties into the Kaskaskia River, popular with anglers and paddlers, said Royce Carlisle, director of the city's wastewater division.
He said officials also worry about the city's ability to grow if overflows aren't controlled.
"We don't want the EPA to say we can't add anything to the ... system," he said
Galesburg has separated most of its storm and sanitary sewers, built satellite treatment plants in neighborhoods and closed off a dozen outlets that used to dump wastewater into an open ditch. But overflows still happen -- seven to eight times a year in the past three years -- because many houses still divert stormwater directly to the sewers, said Steve Davis, superintendent of the Galesburg Sanitary District.
So the district will spend an estimated $2.5 million to triple the capacity of a lagoon at the main treatment plant, and Davis said a rate increase probably will be needed to pay back any loans used to complete the project.
Another concern about overflows into waterways is that stormwater isn't sinking back into the land and recharging groundwater. Communities should begin looking at ways to slow or stop stormwater from getting into sewer systems in the first place, said Henry Henderson, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's Midwest program.
Some communities have set aside green space, built plant-covered rooftops and streets that allow water to soak into the ground. Aurora has done a good job by expanding open space and building streetscapes to help control water runoff, Henderson said.
"Water is at the heart of sustainability of all our communities," Henderson said. "Investing in and improving water is not just an environmental issue, but it's about sustainability and the growth of the Midwest economy."
Despite the costs, the water-quality improvements to date in many communities have been dramatic -- and could pay off economically, said the state EPA's Yurdin.
In Chicago, some parts of the river have improved so much that it's no longer rare to see schools of paddlers in colorful kayaks, and the banks are lined with restaurants, housing and hotels.
In Aurora, the sewer system overflowed 1,100 times in 1983, but just 178 times last year, after the city spent $200 million on controls that included a special treatment plant. It still plans to spend another $120 million over 20 years to build another treatment plant and separate more sewers, said Eric Schoeny, an engineer with the city's public works department.
Now condominiums are being built along the Fox River, the city is redeveloping a park that will include a canoe launch and entertainment space and anglers are returning to a waterway that barely supported aquatic life 25 years ago -- but now yields smallmouth bass and the occasional walleye and northern pike, Schoeny said.
"I don't think that would have happened before," said Schoeny. "After it rained there would be all sorts of disgusting evidence of (combined sewer) discharges. Now I think a lot more people taking advantage of the river and realizing what a great resource it is."
Mechanic, the canoeist, says he's seen the payoff first hand along the banks of the Chicago River.
"I remember that when my grandparents bought their (Chicago home), the property value was depressed by its proximity to the river," he said. "Today, the river is so attractive that developers are competing to buy and develop million-dollar condos."