The Riverwalk, as seen from Wacker Drive and Orleans Street Credit: danielle a. scruggs

Before the Lucas Museum came along, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s most visible legacy project was the reinvention of the city’s riverfront. The construction of six new blocks of the Riverwalk would be his sparkling achievement, the Emanuel version of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Millennium Park.

But for now, the path is still under construction, and as of mid-May programming for the existing stretch—which opened last summer with much hoopla—has yet to be made public. Aside from last week’s announcement that a 62-acre South Loop site that abuts the river will finally be developed, the big news this year is all about improvements to the water.

While cleaner water is certainly good news, the Riverwalk expansion, which will create a continuous concrete path from the lakefront to the Lake Street Bridge, put the city at least $95 million in debt, and arguably mainly benefits the developers of a new crop of luxury high-rise buildings sprouting along its western reaches.

Those high-end towers—where, for example, 750-square-foot apartments will rent for $2,500—will have a view much improved from the industrial hodgepodge that previously characterized the vicinity of historic Wolf Point, site of the city’s first commercial buildings.

The city has said it intends to pay down the federal loan it used to finance the construction with vendor fees. Last year vendors on the existing stretch of Riverwalk grossed $4.5 million in revenue and paid the city $355,000.

On Saturday, Mayor Emanuel released the names of vendors for this season, which runs from May 30 through November 1. In addition to returning vendors City Winery, Cyrano’s Cafe & Wine Bar, Island Party Hut, and O’Brien’s Riverwalk Cafe, three new food vendors are on the list: Tiny Hatt, with cocktails from Lincoln Square bar Tiny Lounge and food from Big Hatt Gourmet; Lillies, with grab-and-go options; and mobile dessert cart Dulce in Horto. Water taxis and cruise boats are back too, as is Urban Kayaks, with rentals at $30 an hour per person if you have experience and $45 for a training outing. You’ll also find Wheel Fun bicycle rentals and Downtown Docks, which provides motorboat parking.

In the neighborhoods, the mayor’s river renovation efforts so far mostly consist of four Park District-owned boathouses offering canoe and kayak rentals and public docks for launching. One of those, the Eleanor Boathouse at Park 571 in Bridgeport, is still under construction and won’t be open until November. The other three are the Ping Tom Memorial Park boathouse in Chinatown, inaugurated last summer; the WMS boathouse at Clark Park (on the site of the former Riverview Amusement Park, and named for the gaming company/donor whose headquarters it faces); and the River Park boathouse, near Argyle and Whipple.

There are no public storage facilities at the boathouses, and programming is limited, although year-round training and participation in recreational and competitive rowing is available at WMS through the Chicago Rowing Foundation. Eleanor boathouse will also offer rowing activities, although not in time for this season. Rental operations at the boathouses are run by private contractors; early this month, only the WMS facility was open; the other two will open Memorial Day weekend, according to the Park District.

Indeed, the biggest improvement for the river this year is the one you can’t readily see, and it has nothing to do with the mayor’s construction program: a federally mandated cleanup, ordered in 2011, but only recently implemented.

Since last summer, two plants operated by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District—one on 130th Street and one on Howard Street in Skokie—have begun disinfecting water flowing into the Chicago and Calumet Rivers. Prior to this, the 1.2 billion gallons of effluent released into the river every day were treated but not disinfected, allowing E. coli and other potentially harmful pathogens to enter the river. An MWRD spokesperson says it’s “too soon to discuss the impact,” but the data so far is promising: In tests comparing water samples taken from the southeast-side plant in April 2015 to those taken during the same month this year, the concentration of bacteria dropped from an average of 55,996 colony forming units (CFU) per 100 ml to just 13. The Illinois standard for safe swimming is 235 CFU.

“The sewage effluent now coming into the river at those two locations is very clean,” says Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “The question would be, is there any other stuff in the river?” Like, for example, contaminants from combined sewer overflow—a mixture of wastewater and rainwater that empties into the river when Chicago’s sewer system is overwhelmed. That’s occurring less frequently now, with parts of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, the so-called “Deep Tunnel,” including two reservoirs, now online (one opened just last fall). Still, Frisbie says, MWRD dumped combined sewer overflow into the rivers about 40 times last year. And the Deep Tunnel project, started in the 1970s and designed to accommodate 20.5 billion gallons of overflow, won’t be complete until 2029.

“The goal is that the storage capacity is large enough that nothing ever gets released during a combined overflow; it only gets into the river system via a treatment plant,” Frisbie says.

Friends of the Chicago River is also advocating for water-quality warnings—like those that operate at Chicago’s beaches—at river access points such as the boathouses, Richard J. Daley Park, and forest preserves along the North Branch.

A year ago, the city, Friends of the Chicago River, and the Metropolitan Planning Council launched Great Rivers Chicago, a program to “creatively reimagine” the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines Rivers. If you want to weigh in on what comes next, they’ll host a public meeting at Rowan Park Fieldhouse, 11546 S. Avenue L, on May 24 at 6 PM.

As for swimming in the river, like the construction, it’s also a work in progress, Frisbie says—maybe within five years. But, she says, “We are going to start figuring out where good swimming and wading places should be.” v