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A new way to monitor water quality in the Chicago River

The Chicago Community Trust is currently funding 11 community-led riverfront projects through their Our Great Rivers grant. This piece is the second in our 2019 series highlighting these projects.

Photo courtesy of Current

Do you know what the water quality in the Chicago River is right now? Pretty soon you will!

Today, people come into contact with water without knowing how clean the water is at the moment because, until now, there’s been no way to check pollution levels in real time. Traditional water quality tests take hours or days to complete in a lab, so they cannot provide timely or easily accessible information. Receiving real-time water quality information changes that.

H2NOW Chicago, a pilot project being led by Current in partnership with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, as well as 17 other partners, has installed water quality sensors in all three branches of the Chicago River. The goal of H2NOW is to provide residents, visitors and outdoor water recreation enthusiasts with information to encourage river-based activities, as well as highlight the natural beauty of the waterway.

These innovative sensors, about the size of a small baseball bat, collect hourly data on microbial pollution, which will provide a new level of insight into water quality compared to the monthly water quality samples that are taken today. The probes will measure fecal coliforms, the concentrations of which can indicate the presence of other potentially harmful viruses and bacteria, such as E. coli, that can make people sick if they come in contact with the contaminated water. Understanding fecal coliform levels is a key indicator that the public will be able to use to help determine when and how to interact with the Chicago River, whether kayaking, powerboating or fishing, for example.

As part of the first phase of this project, Current is testing the sensors to make sure the readings are accurate and reliable. The project’s second phase will include creating a public website where you can access this real time water quality data. Imagine being able to quickly check the water quality of the river online before interacting with it – utilizing technology in this way can significantly help stakeholders make more educated decisions.

Based on historical data that shows the river’s water quality has greatly improved in recent years, the Current team is hopeful that H2NOW will reveal that water quality in the river is generally good on most days. This new technology, coupled with a publicly accessible website, is a game changer for how quickly we can monitor water quality in our waterways. Understanding what’s in the river and when, is a big step towards making the river swimmable by 2030, a goal set out in the Our Great Rivers vision.     

Based on the success of the first two stages of this project, Current is planning to expand its ability to monitor water quality to eventually include other important measurements, like dissolved oxygen, as well as other pollutants. These efforts will serve to increase the amount of knowledge we have about the quality of our river systems, which will help improve our ability as a city and region to take action to continue improving the health and cleanliness of our waterways.

Steve Frenkel serves as Executive Director for Current, a Chicago non-profit dedicated to water technology innovation. George Brigandi serves as Current’s Partnership & Development Manager.