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Growing Up with Urban Waters

2010 February 23

I can still recall watching the soap suds fly over the River Park ball field from my Chicago front yard on a windy summer’s day. This was before the ban on phosphate enriched detergents that took away those dirty bubbles created by the small North Branch of the Chicago River flowing over the spillway into the North Shore Channel. This urban resource was fenced-in from the community for decades due to safety concerns, but my grandfather would still take me through a hole in the fence to look at the turtles, dragonflies and to watch him fish.

image of a walkway with shrubs on the right and a waterway on the left just beyond a fenceThanks to numerous restoration and protection efforts, this community at River Park now has a revitalized waterfront both upstream and downstream of the spillway. Access to the river has been made by removing the old fences, constructing walkways and viewing areas, and opening a boat launch just downstream of the spillway. River Park has developed into a popular fishing spot for more than just the immediate community.

This river is more than just a recreational opportunity for its residents to enjoy. It serves as a living laboratory for students and teachers to explore and learn. Adjacent to this urban waterway is a Chicago public high school – the Von Steuben High Science Center and two Universities (North Park and Northeastern Illinois). As a high school student I did a study relating bacteria counts to river flow at North Park University and as a senior I conducted an expanded research study of the aquatic life in the North Branch and presented it in the Chicago Science Fair. I was awarded a two year summer internship with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which eventually led to my career at EPA.

Living along an urban waterway can inspire and provide special opportunities for community members to expand their understanding of their local waters and contribute to its restoration and protection. I know I’m not unique in this regard and I look forward to seeing more anecdotes on this blog describing how others were inspired and took action to improve our urban waterways.

About the Author: Wayne Davis is an environmental scientist in the Office of Environmental Information and has been promoting the use of aquatic biological indicators for community outreach for most of his 23 year EPA tenure. He also manages a Web site on biological indicators –

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    February 24, 2010

    We also have a good example with the Oso Creek Trail. It is a waterway that has its roots in the Angeles National Forest and drains into the Pacific Ocean at Dana Point. Here in Mission Viejo, our city public works department is always out making the trail a better place to walk or ride on (it is wheelchair accessible), the water district is out taking care of its facilities along the trail, the county public works department has a grocery cart patrol that does the trail at least once a day to take out abandoned grocery carts. The trail is nice and also clean and safe. The city just got a grant and is using the money to upgrade the trail recycled water system. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  2. Sergio permalink
    February 24, 2010

    this is a great post, I really enjoyed reading this content,
    I am looking forward to reading more! I just added your sites
    RSS Feed. :)

  3. armansyahardanis permalink
    February 24, 2010

    If you try of the research of an aquatic biological indicators in our city, jakarta, I don’t know what could you say that. Ciliwung river, in our city, have many problems : The communities along the river use it for wash, bath and closet. The water of it are rather yellow – sometimes green. The people, there, always threw garbage on the river and then resulted the flood. Sometimes in a year, there are many floods in this area, and we are appear each five years, jakarta have to “sink and lost” by the water.

  4. Lindsey Realmuto permalink
    February 24, 2010

    As a quick fact check, the adjacent high school to the River Park is Northside College Prep, which has access to the River Park literally in the back of the school…where I think the picture you used came from. Von Steuben High School is close but a few blocks away. I went to Northside College Prep and the River Park was completed while I was still in high school there.
    Otherwise, I agree that the River Park is an amazing example of a restoration project and as a school we participated in a lot of Chicago River clean-up days which always demonstrated, for me, how polluted the river had become and the desperate need for restoration projects such as this one. Being able to enjoy this path during high school was a privilege and I still take pleasure in returning to the area with friends who still live in Chicago. My only critique of the project is that in some areas they installed solar panel lights, which have not been maintained and therefore don’t generate electricity to light the path. Sustainability for projects like this should always be considered.

  5. Al Bannet permalink
    February 24, 2010


    Jakarta and all large cities around the World need a system of 100% safe recycling of all waste and garbage. Then much fewer people will be getting sick from the pollution.

  6. Ann permalink
    February 25, 2010

    I really like your post. It is a very cool place, many trees that surrounds you and a very clean river at the side. Great post.

  7. Wayne Davis permalink
    February 25, 2010

    You make a good point, Lindsey. The Northside College Prep High School is another good example of communities benefiting from urban waters aned vice versa. Your alma mater was built after I left that area and is along the North Shore Channel about a half mile north of River Park. North Park University and Von Steuben High School are adjacent to North Branch upstream of River Park.
    There are probably countless clean-ups and study projects that Northside College Prep contributed along this urban waterway to both better understand and to improve it’s conditions. I hope that other schools and communities follow it’s example. Thanks for your feedback!

  8. Wayne Davis permalink
    February 25, 2010

    Thank you for your kind comment and I look forward to learning about experiences that others have living in urban waters communities.

  9. Wayne Davis permalink
    February 25, 2010

    Thank you, Ann. The trees always attracted people to that area, especially the large low hanging willows. Watching people with their fishing poles line the area is a welcome change from years ago. These “biological indicators” show promise as do studies of fish and other aquatic life. While there has been a great deal of progress made over the past several years more will be welcome to further restoring this, and other, urban waterways.

  10. Margaret Frisbie permalink
    February 25, 2010

    Wayne’s experience at River Park is one that many people are sharing throughout nearly 100 communities along the Chicago River system. Once a trash-strewn, sewage-filled back alley for Chicago and neighboring suburbs, today the Chicago River is alive with activity above and below the water with 70 species of fish, 60 species of birds and a host of other creatures like beavers, muskrats and people who are paddling, fishing, birdwatching, rowing crew, dining, or just enjoying the view.

    Sadly, while the water looks lovely on the surface, unlike in other cities, there is still bacterial pollution from sewage treatment being dumped into the river by the billion gallons daily. That pollution from human sewage contains potentially harmful pathogens that especially endanger at-risk populations like children or the immuno-compromised who access the river at public parks and boat docks and do not know the river can make them sick.

    The time has come for new water quality standards for the Chicago River to protect them.

  11. Sarah permalink
    May 31, 2010

    Eleven brands of bottled water contain levels of chromium 6 that don’t meet standards now under consideration by the state, according to according to tests released Wednesday by Los Angeles County.

    The county’s Environmental Toxicology Bureau also released results of 990 tests of tap water at county government facilities, revealing that drinking water drinking water supply of water available to animals for drinking supplied via nipples, in troughs, dams, ponds and larger natural water sources; an insufficient supply leads to dehydration; it can be the source of infection, e.g. leptospirosis, salmonellosis, or of poisoning, e.g. at some locations contains levels of chromium 6 and arsenic that would not meet state and federal standards under consideration.

  12. Jewelry Buyers Houston permalink
    June 12, 2010

    I agreed with this article of Wayne Davis, if we growing up with Urban Waters, then we can solve our drinking water problem. If we does not look at this problem then in future it’s going to be a big problem. but , from today we are looking for the Urban water resources and try to clean and free from pollution then we can solve a big problem. again than ks Wayne Davis for your environmental article.

  13. Garage kits permalink
    September 21, 2010

    arent they supposed to be dirty

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