Would You Swim in the Chicago River? Navigating Safety Concerns Ahead of Open Water Swim Event

Chicagoans are familiar with the lore of the Chicago River.

It used to be a dumping site filled with raw sewage and animal waste from the stockyards. Today, the river is a tourist attraction lined with cutesy shops and rooftop bars. Still, while the river doesn’t stink like an onion anymore, its history has many residents uninterested in taking a dip in it anytime soon.

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So, unsurprisingly, when nonprofit A Long Swim announced an open water swim event in the Chicago River, it was met with some hesitation.

Proceeds from the event will support ALS research at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Learn to Swim, a program that teaches children in underserved communities how to swim.

Doug McConnell, CEO and founder of A Long Swim, grew up swimming competitively, and his love for the sport hasn’t waned. He said swimming in an open body of water is an exciting challenge, though it’s only meant for more seasoned athletes.

Five hundred qualified participants will be permitted to join. Currently, there are more than 1,100 applicants spanning 56 Chicago neighborhoods and from countries as far away as New Zealand.

The event has also caused a stir with elected officials. News of the open swim broke earlier this month with reports stating that despite its promotion, the city has yet to approve the event.

It’s true that Chicago officials and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events haven’t formally approved the event. However, the river is federal water, and organizers have a permit from the U.S. Coast Guard. Because the nonprofit is working under the auspices of the Coast Guard, they are managing communication and approvals with the city.

Ald. Bill Conway (34th Ward) had this to say in a statement to WTTW News: “I look forward to learning more about this event in support of a great cause. I think it was irresponsible for the organizers to announce the event without reaching out to my office or the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, but misunderstandings happen. Moving forward, it’s important that they coordinate closely with DCASE and area alders to obtain the appropriate permits and ensure this event can be done safely for both participants and residents in our community.”

McConnell said to mitigate the dangers that come with swimming in a commercial area, the plan is to close the river for the event, along with using underwater sonar readings to keep obstacles at bay.

So, is the river even clean enough to swim in?

Short answer: yes.

“The ambient water quality on your average day is good enough for swimming,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “If you plan for swimming and you do the kinds of things they’re doing for the Chicago River Swim, the river is fine. That’s why this is such a great demonstration of how you can change people’s cultural remembrance and understanding of the river.”

Friends of the Chicago River supports the event.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago said in a statement that while the Chicago River’s water quality has improved dramatically in recent years, “many hazards exist on the waterways such as boat traffic, currents and lack of ingress and egress. For this event, the Chicago River Swim is working closely with the Chicago Harbor Safety Committee to implement specific safeguards, and while we wish the organizers, participants, and spectators a successful event, the MWRD wants everyone to remember that swimming in the Chicago River is generally prohibited and dangerous.”

The Chicago River Swim is set to take place Sept. 22.

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