Headed out to the Chicago or Calumet River this Labor Day weekend? Find out how much bacteria is in the water before you go.

Looking over a wobbly guardrail, Dale Landmann uncoiled a few feet of rope, cautiously lowering a white plastic pipe into the opaque waters of the Calumet River on a recent hot weekday morning. Attached to one end of the pipe was a buoy to keep the apparatus afloat; on the other end, a metal grate weighed it down so river water could flow into a small glass jar.

After collecting the first sample, Landmann spent a couple of hours filling two more jars at different intervals. These monthly manual samples are used to recalibrate instruments that are gathering information from Chicago waterways.

“It’s a 24-hour kind of surveillance of the river,” said Landmann, a community sampling coordinator for the environmental nonprofit Current. “So it’s kind of like a security camera. We have data all the time.”

As climate change is fueling more intense rain events, sensors are gathering information every 15 minutes from the Chicago River, North Branch, South Branch and most recently, the Calumet River. Heavy downpours, such as those that occurred over the first weekend of July, can overwhelm sewer pipes and cause waste to flow into area rivers.

Ahead of Labor Day weekend, Current began publishing the results of this season’s real-time tests for fecal matter in these waterways.

The organization says its goal is to inform residents and policymakers about how safe the rivers are for recreational use. Unlike other publicly available real-time monitoring, which generally indicates characteristics such as temperature and salinity, these sensors provide information that can’t be immediately found elsewhere.

“We’re still working on perfecting the science and understanding how much poop is in the river; how long does it last? Why does it matter?” said Current Executive Director Alaina Harkness.

Current launched real-time water quality testing in the Chicago River in 2021 and added the Calumet River this year. With its heavily industrialized riverbanks, the Calumet is not considered a popular recreational waterway.

But based on geography, Current decided it was the next step in expanding monitoring of what Harkness calls a “giant river system.” The new real-time monitoring data may also better inform South Side residents and advocates as they demand increased public access to the Calumet River, many hoping to see industrial land turned into parkland in the future.

Novel sensor

Current uses sensors to measure a variety of water conditions. Harkness said the organization is focused mostly on monitoring the presence of fecal matter in waterways to increase people’s awareness about health risks as they kayak, paddleboard, fish and participate in other activities that bring them into contact with the water.

One of the sensors measures an amino acid called tryptophan that Harkness said all warm-blooded animals, including humans, have in their systems and excrete through their waste.

Humans need tryptophan to produce serotonin and melatonin — which regulate mood and sleep, respectively — but their bodies can’t make tryptophan on their own. Rather, humans can obtain it by consuming animal products such as chicken, fish and turkey or plant-based food, including nuts and soy.

The sensor that Current is using to determine the presence of fecal matter in the rivers shines an LED light into the water to detect tryptophan, which is fluorescent. Finding this amino acid in water serves as a proxy, or surrogate, indicator for the presence of fecal coliform bacteria from animal and human waste, which is hard to detect by itself.

“The tryptophan sensor is novel,” Harkness said. “When we were looking at how climate and heavy rainfall affect poop levels in the river, we can’t do that. We only have proxies for that. This is the proxy.”

Current publishes its results on its h2nowchicago.org website, and its researchers are using the information to study how flooding affects the health of the rivers.

Since 2015, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, a taxpayer-financed agency that operates separately from City Hall and Cook County government, has been required to disinfect wastewater in treatment facilities — the oldest of which is the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant — before releasing it into waterways.

“That’s what ideally happens,” said Laura Barghusen, blueways director at Openlands, a nonprofit environmental group.

But when the city of Chicago experiences particularly heavy rainfall, combined rain and wastewater may overflow from sewage pipes and into local waterways. These events are known as combined sewer overflows.

“If you get really heavy rains, the pipes that carry rainwater and wastewater from houses or industrial facilities ... get overwhelmed,” Barghusen said. “Then the sewers can just overflow and then everything would just directly go into the river before it gets treated.”

Sewage has discharged into the Chicago River because of heavy rains a handful of times this summer, the MWRD said.

After Aug. 6 rains, sensors in the South Branch recorded data that Current’s fecal coliform model showed peaked at 16,000 CFUs, or colony-forming units. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for safe levels of fecal coliform is below 200 CFUs. In the main stem of the Chicago River, fecal coliform peaked around 1,000 CFUs, with levels rising modestly because of the flow from Lake Michigan, Landmann said.

Drinking or coming into contact with elevated levels of this type of bacteria may cause an upset stomach, vomiting, fever or diarrhea. It can also cause serious conditions or death in vulnerable populations such as children, older people and those with weak immune systems.

So much rain fell over the July 1 weekend that waste and runoff poured out of nearly a dozen overflow pipes across Cook County, from Evanston to Westchester, many for hours at a time. MWRD had to open the locks near Navy Pier to relieve pressure on the system, allowing more than 1.1 billion gallons of waste to flow into Lake Michigan.

MWRD said no sewage flowed into the Calumet River during the July 1 weekend or during any rainstorm this year.

However, the data that the H2NOW monitor in the Calumet River collected during the July 1 weekend indicated a high concentration of fecal matter in the waterway.

The model that Current uses to estimate the levels of fecal coliform peaked that weekend at 14,000 CFUs.

The water’s opacity, salinity and amount of dissolved organic matter also spiked, more indicators that fecal matter was present in the river.

There might, however, be an explanation for the confusing spike in readings despite the lack of sewer overflows in the Calumet River area recently. According to the EPA, stormwater from heavy rains can run off impermeable surfaces into waterways.

“We’ve seen the reduction in combined sewer overflows, so you’re not getting that combined sewage,” said Thomas Minarik, principal environmental scientist at the MWRD. “But storm events themselves and stormwater can run off the land, Forest Preserve properties, the neighborhood streets or bridges. That carries a lot of pollutants, contaminants, bacteria — because fecal coliform is from animals as well as humans.”

He said that combined sewer overflows have been “very rare and few and far between” in the Calumet River because of the MWRD’s $3.8 billion flood-control project known as the Deep Tunnel.

“In the Calumet, we’ve had the tunnel system in place for a couple of decades or more,” said John Quail, director of policy and conservation at Friends of the Chicago River.

Quail added that the Thornton Composite Reservoir has been online since 2015. “The tunnel system is capturing the first big flush of a storm event and then the reservoir is helping relieve the tunnel system and take on that excess water,” he said.

The Chicago River dumps into a different reservoir that is slated to be expanded. Current had removed its Chicago River equipment for repairs during the July 1 weekend storms so no results are available.

But as intense storms due to climate change occur more frequently in the Chicago area, the Calumet River may also see increased risk of sewage overflow in the future.

“The Deep Tunnel is going to be a solution, in a way, to solving a lot of these flooding problems when it’s ultimately done in 2029,” Quail said. “But, always, the big part of climate change is that all the rainfall data has changed since it was designed. So we need to find some way to cover that rainfall between what the Deep Tunnel can handle and what we’re actually going to see.”

The ambitious project, Quail said, was designed in the early 1970s with rainfall data that was decades old at that time.

“So that is why we’re so interested in gathering as much baseline (data) to really try to understand this, because the standards we’ve been monitoring toward are based on data from the past,” Harkness said. “So how do we understand, really, what’s happening now so that we can adapt?”

The Calumet River system

In a 19th-century Chicago with no sewer system, human waste dumped into the river would flow freely into Lake Michigan, contaminating drinking water and causing fatal cholera outbreaks. The construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was completed by 1900, effectively reversing the flow of the Chicago River away from the lake.

Connecting the Little Calumet River to the canal is the 16-mile long Cal-Sag Channel that was also part of the project to reverse the flow of the Calumet River out of Lake Michigan.

Centuries later, concerns about Chicago’s contaminated waterways persist.

“I think there is this perception, in terms of both the Calumet River and Lake Calumet, that the water is very dirty, that it’s dangerous,” said Angela Larsen, director of planning at the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “Almost like, ‘It’s not for us.’ There’s very few places along the Calumet River that people can legally go to. ... There’s almost no legal public access points along the Calumet River.”

Most of the land on the riverbanks is publicly owned but has been leased to private industries, Quail said.

“That’s something that we think is a key distinction because in a lot of cases, we don’t think that’s the highest and best use for public lands and that it can be used better maybe as a park or as a recreational facility or something else,” he said.

One such case is the current litigation over a lakefront dump where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been piling toxic sediment dredged from the Calumet River and Cal-Sag Channel. According to a 1982 deal, the Army Corps would cover the 45-acre dump site after filling it and the land would be converted into an extension of nearby Calumet Park. But the Army Corps wants to keep piling toxic sediment for at least two more decades and up to 25 feet higher. Community groups have sued to stop the expansion.

Approximately 93% of residents within a 10-minute walk from the Calumet River between the lake and South Halsted Street are either Black or Hispanic, and the river’s surrounding communities are 86% to 100% communities of color, according to a demographic analysis from Friends of the Chicago River with their Trust for Public Land Natural Solutions Tool.

The same tool indicates the East Side community area — which is east of the river and flanked by Indiana — has between 60% and 70% of impervious cover or impermeable surfaces, a characteristic that makes a location more vulnerable to severe flooding since most of its ground area doesn’t absorb rainwater.

According to its analysis, Friends of the River noted that many of the areas around the Calumet River rank as a 10, the highest level of susceptibility, in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Flood Susceptibility Index for Urban Areas.

“There should be a higher priority put on managing (land) to address equity, to address environmental justice,” Quail said, “whether that’s through recreation — there’s techniques to take open space and convert it into stormwater storage but in a garden-like setting, so it creates community benefit for recreation and aesthetics, but also deals with flooding.”

Larsen also said stormwater runoff from heavy rains can carry contaminated sediment and dirt from the adjacent industrialized land into the waterway.

Monitoring for industrial pollutants such as heavy metals generally does not require real-time testing because there would be little to no sample variability before, during and after rainfall, Harkness said. Spot monitoring in a certain location would be more appropriate in those cases.

“A real-time setup is useful for things that are fluctuating a lot, when we want to know something more frequently than conventional monitoring,” she said. “So there may be another solution for industrial monitoring, that we need to dig into further.”

Public access equity

Next to Blue Island’s Division Street Bridge, the Calumet River testing site is a small oasis of greenery and quiet. As Harkness talked, she occasionally called out the names of the birds she noticed, including a green heron with wings that shined with iridescent colors as it flew nearby. Imposing gray buildings cut off most of the surrounding communities’ access to the Calumet.

“We are just really excited to be able to use this access point to tell the story,” she said. “Also, it’s obviously a great storytelling backdrop, to see the river, its industrial heritage, the restoration and all the wildlife coming back.”

Harkness said Current plans to use the new location for educational programming; their other three sites along the Chicago River are accessible only by boat.

“Communities are disconnected from the waterway in that way because there’s this legacy of industry along the (river), mostly because the industry needed to access the water for barging,” Quail said. “And that’s not necessarily the case now anymore, there’s actually a lot of truck transfer and operations.”

He pointed out, however, that there are benefits to still utilizing barges to move goods through water since their use keeps trucks off the roads. But he said the river is “uniquely suited” to serve different purposes at the same time like the Chicago River’s main stem and where it flows downtown, where boat traffic and people kayaking and paddle boarding coexist.

“There’s an equity issue there, too, about why we put so much effort into public access in the areas where we do and then there’s not enough public access in the Calumet,” he said, pointing out the economic revitalization of the Chicago River’s North Branch.

“Because of the capacity of the Deep Tunnel, (the Calumet River) could have cleaner water from a bacteria standpoint than the North Side, but it’s cut off from this recreational asset — that would increase property values like you’ve seen on the North Side — because of these under-resourced municipalities and this ribbon of industrial use that doesn’t necessarily need to be there,” Quail said.

Advocates and researchers hope that increasing public awareness of the health of rivers, including the Calumet, will encourage citizens to demand their elected officials rehabilitate waterways.

Friends of the Chicago River encourages beginner paddlers to get to know the waterways through its canoe program, which takes people throughout the Chicago-Calumet River system with a special focus on areas with limited opportunities to rent or get out on the river in a boat.

Openlands has partnered with the Field Museum to promote environmental justice and the connections between communities and their historical contributions to the end of slavery.

In 2019, a 7-mile stretch of the Calumet River system was designated the African American Heritage Water Trail, which can be explored by expert paddlers with their own boats or by amateur enthusiasts interested in guided events through Openlands.

“Along that stretch there is really significant African American history,” said Barghusen. So we’ve been really trying to boost use of the river and a sort of pride in the river.”