Rahm Emanuel has been mayor of Chicago for just a few hours and he has an environmental issue on his hands.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has notified Illinois that the water quality standards for portions of the Chicago and Calumet rivers need to be upgraded to make the waterways safe for swimming. Essentially, the EPA action calls for the Illinois Pollution Control Board to adopt new standards or to revise current standards. If the board refuses to take action, the EPA can create the new standards for them.

The condition of the waterways has been on the EPA’s radar since 2007, when the agency first recommended that Illinois upgrade its waterway standards. The agency has since issued several recommendations, the latest being Monday’s announcement.

Most people speculate that improving the waterway standards will mean that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago must require that sewage dumped into the waterways be disinfected. Since the 1980s, treatment plants have not disinfected treated sewage that is sent into the water. This practice doesn’t jibe with recent attempts to attract recreation to the area.

According to an EPA release, the increase in kayaking, jet skiing and boating in Chicago waterways means that water quality standards should be more stringent. EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman said “The Clean Water Act requires water quality standards that protect people who use the river.” The EPA is basically saying that with increased water use comes increased scrutiny for water standards.

This may be welcome news for anyone who likes to jet ski around the Chicago River and nearby waterways, but Terrence O’Brien, the board president for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago, sees a headache. He told the Environmental Leader that treating the discharged sewage would be, “premature, costly, [and] ineffective as a way to make the Chicago-area waterways swimmable.”

Water concerns on Emanuel's first day as Chicago mayor
As more people use the waterways around Chicago for fun, the EPA says it's time the water be cleaned up.