Growing Up with Urban Waters

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 –

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