chicago river green

The Dyeing of the Green – St. Patrick’s Day Reminds Us About the State of the Chicago River


There’s an old joke most famously spoken by Tommy Lee Jones’s Marshall in the Fugitive: “If they can dye the river green today, why can’t they dye it blue the other 364 days of the year?”  Just dyeing the Chicago River blue isn’t a great idea, environmentally speaking, but perhaps we could treat the St. Patrick’s Day dye job as a reminder of the importance of our own dear waterway and let it draw attention to the general health of the Chicago waterways (bad).  We could and should be doing better by our river.

The Green Backstory: Chicago’s Irish Pride Overflows

Coloring the river bright green has been a “miraculous” part of the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations here in Chicago since 1961 when, as the story goes, a plumber stoping by union headquarters in his work clothes just before St. Pat’s day was covered in green dye he’d been using to trace the path of a waste line from a building that dumped into the river.  His coveralls were stained clover green and sparked off the idea of coloring the whole river.  That first year they dumped in 100 lb of fluorescein dye and colored the river green for a week.  Its still done every year and still supervised by the Plumbers Union but the dye has been changed of a more eco friendly vegetable dye.

Mostly Harmless: Green dye is NOT the worst thing that gets dumped here

Environmental groups don’t generally have any problem with coloring the Chicago River, although other city’s have had the idea of dye for their local rivers nixed by environmental agencies. The color may seem bright enough to be toxic (more like Slimer’s ectoplasmic goo than a river of clovers) but it is basically small potatoes in terms of the typical effluent into our river.

Some Real Problems with the Chicago River

Chicago doesn’t exactly have a storied tradition of treating our waterways with care and watching what we dump in the river seems to be one of the last ideas that gets floated when there are water quality problems.  We are after all, the city who chose to reverse the flow of the river, (from running into Lake Michigan to emptying into the Mississippi River water system) in the largest effort of Civil Engineering of the late 19th century when pollution levels (from the entirety of the city’s sewage being routed into the river) threatened the city’s lake sources of drinking water.

In theory we are smart enough to no longer dump sewage into the river, but, in fact, the Chicago River was added to American Rivers’ 2011 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers due to the estimated “1.2 billion gallons of partially treated human and industrial waste” flowing into it every day.  That citation led to a watershed vote to put new anti-bacterial disinfection procedures in place before releasing treated water into the river.

A cherry picked list of recent Chicago River news shows many problems:

Chicago Tribune: Scientists put Chicago River’s Trash Under the Microscope
Prairie Rivers Network: 10 Times Pollution is Way Too Much
Progress Illinois: 17 Illinois Coal Fired Power Plants Discharge Water Pollution
Chicago Mag: What’s Actually in the Chicago River? A New Study Aims to Find Out

Hope for the Future

The news isn’t all bad though.  New enforcement and environmental policies (like the disinfection process) are improving the health of Chicago’s waterways.  And the new Chicago Riverwalk, proposed by Mayor Emanuel in 2012, which will build a continuous walkway at near-water level along the river between Lake and State streets downtown, is sure to draw much-needed attention to the health of the river.

What’s your favorite (or least) favorite thing about the Chicago River?