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How Often Does Sewage Flow Into the Chicago River? 61 Days and Counting

By Ted Cox | October 6, 2014 5:16am
 A website built by the Open City project in 1871 charts when and where raw sewage is released into the Chicago River.
A website built by the Open City project in 1871 charts when and where raw sewage is released into the Chicago River.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

RIVER NORTH — Last week’s rains meant more than just a soggy commute: It meant more raw sewage got dumped in the Chicago River, according to a website launched this year to track the practice.

Created by the Open City project in the 1871 technology incubator at the Merchandise Mart, the self-explanatory Is There Sewage in the Chicago River? site reveals when and where raw sewage has been released into the city's river system.

So far, it's happened 61 times this year, the site says.

Ted Cox says the city is open about the sewage data:

It also has the potential to help the city's water experts — and residents — predict when it might happen again.

"It started out with this notion that this is gross, people should know about it," said Derek Eder, co-founder of Open City and owner of its business incarnation DataMade, Friday at 1871.

 Open City co-founder Derek Eder says the site uses data from the city's Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.
Open City co-founder Derek Eder says the site uses data from the city's Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Open City specializes in taking publicly available information, as found on the city's Data Portal, and converting it to "make it more accessible to people," Eder said, as in the Chicago Councilmatic site tracking City Council legislation, and Chicago Lobbyists, ranking the city's busiest lobbyists and lobbying companies.

Eder praised the Data Portal.

"However, the average citizen is not necessarily gonna get excited to download a spreadsheet of thousands of rows," he added.

Is There Sewage in the Chicago River? actually draws not on the Data Portal, but directly on information found on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District site, which puts out alerts on what's called "combined sewer overflow events."

"I think the opportunity we saw was to put this in a context that was easier to share, to allow even more people to see this was really going on," Eder said. "It probably happens much more often than people maybe realize. Really, whenever we get any significant amount of rain, or snow melt, it happens."

The Water Reclamation District is transparent about it.

"The choice MWRD has to face is are we going to let people's basements flood, or are we gonna discharge it into the only place we can, which is the river?" Eder added.

The choice is obvious for people dealing with a hard rain and finished basements, less so for those downriver. Eder said the site is informational, but can also have a role in "a more informed debate about what's happening."

The site has added a "History" tab that shows that how often the city had to dump raw sewage in the rivers to avert or minimize flooding. While that already happened more than 60 times this year, Eder said it was possible to eventually link the data up with precipitation figures to, in effect, predict how much rain in the grid can cause a buildup that calls for those drastic measures.

That, however, is in the future. For now, it's one of Open City's most popular sites, with Eder saying it averages up to 3,000 unique page views a month, with spikes when rains fall hard.

Developed over the course of this year, it grew out of Open City's Open Gov Hack Night, a weekly Tuesday gathering that Eder said typically attracts 80 or 90 people to discuss what government information is out there online and how to make use of it.

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