05/13/2011 10:42 am ET Updated Jul 13, 2011

Chicago River Must Be Clean Enough To Swim In, EPA Orders

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an order on Thursday that has been long suggested and long resisted: the city of Chicago must make the river that runs through its heart -- now a dumping-ground for sewage and pollutants -- clean enough for swimming.

Almost a year ago, the EPA sent a letter to a state rulemaking panel suggesting that the water quality in the river be upgraded, and pointing out that the federal Clean Water Act requires waterways to be clean enough for "recreation in and on the water."

But city officials resisted the ruling, claiming that it would be too expensive and constituted an undue federal interference in local affairs. Mayor Richard M. Daley was one of the most vocal opponents of the notion, telling federal officials to "go swim in the Potomac."

The federal agency got a much warmer mayoral reception on Thursday, when it officially demanded that two sections of the river must have upgraded water quality standards.

"By making its waters safe and clean, we can restore the river as a center for recreation and unlock its full potential to enhance Chicagoans' quality of life," said Tarrah Cooper, a spokesperson for Rahm Emanuel's office, according to the Chicago Tribune. "The mayor-elect supports the goals for improvement outlined by the (EPA) and looks forward to seeing the plan that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District will put forward to meet them."

In the 1980s, MWRD essentially threw up its hands at the prospect of cleaning the river. The waterways were designated "secondary contact waters" in 1972, meaning that they weren't intended for recreation; in the middle of the next decade, the city's water agency decided to stop disinfecting sewage dumped into the water because so few people were using it.

Times have changed, though, the EPA points out. "A decade of investments in walkways, boat ramps and parks has provided people with access to the water - and now we need to make sure that the water is safe," said Regional Administrator Susan Hedman in a press release.

Currently, kayaking and some other recreational activities are allowed on the river, but the EPA recommends that anyone who goes on the water cover open wounds, avoid swallowing, and wash hands thoroughly after exposure to the river before eating.