Chicago’s Buildings Need to Help Protect Its River. That Means You Too, Trump Tower.

The president’s hotel uses more river water than any other building and has been chronically out of compliance with the Clean Water Act.
The Trump International Hotel and Tower along Chicago's Loop corridor

Alex Menendez/AP

Each day as the Windy City carries out its business, cars and buses pulse through the streets, pedestrians stroll the new Riverwalk, and kayakers and tour boats stream through Chicago’s tall skyscraper canyons. The cityscape along the Chicago River is an architectural and engineering marvel. But even more is happening beneath the water’s surface. More than 70 species of fish (including many invasive ones) swim and hunt and breed—all while buildings suck in and pour out hundreds of millions of gallons of water.

Together, the buildings along the river use more than 220 million gallons of water daily for their air-conditioning systems. Along with the water, these artificial tributaries pull in and push out all that lives in it: alewives, catfish, largemouth bass, etc. But Trump International Hotel and Tower, a 98-story luxury hotel with condos, takes in more water than any other single skyscraper along the waterway: 20 million gallons per day. And unlike other buildings, it is not in compliance with its Clean Water Act permit. It hasn’t been since 2013, when the permit was issued.

Under the act, buildings need a permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the permit requires building managers to study their water intakes. Because fish can get sucked into pipes, caught on screens where the water flows in, or shocked by temperature or pressure fluctuations when the water pours back out, managers need to ensure that their buildings don’t cause undue harm to the ecosystem. Since 2007, the federal government has enforced a requirement that buildings document how many fish die due to their cooling systems.

A dead fish in the Chicago River, July 2012


“It’s very rare that [fish] get through the system unfazed,” says Phil Willink, a fish biologist formerly with the Shedd Aquarium.

Limiting the damage to these fish is important because the Chicago River is undergoing a profound transformation. Before engineers reversed the direction of its flow more than a century ago, the river was little more than a stinky open sewer that emptied into Lake Michigan. Earlier Chicagoans dumped everything from human waste to slaughterhouse carcasses into the waterway.

Thanks to better wastewater treatment and green infrastructure initiatives to help the urban landscape naturally collect rainwater, as well as the Deep Tunnel project, which helps prevent stormwater from overwhelming the city’s sewers, water quality in the Chicago River has greatly improved in recent decades. Fish, and even a beaver, have swum back. While just around 10 fish species lived in the waterway during the 1970s, scientists have documented 46 native fish species within the city’s waterways during annual surveys over the past 30 years.

“If we can improve the health of the system and the aesthetics, then I think people are more likely to appreciate the river and take care of it,” says Willink.

That, however, doesn’t seem to be a top priority for Trump Tower managers. A Chicago Tribune investigation reported in June that out of nearly a dozen buildings along the Chicago River with a similar permit, Trump Tower was the only one chronically out of compliance. But instead of cracking down on the matter before the Trump Organization applied to renew its permit this year, the Illinois EPA issued a draft permit that wouldn’t have expired until 2021, giving the Trump organization three more years of wiggle room.

“There’s no incentive to comply if you get three more years to get the homework done that you should have done four years ago,” says Albert Ettinger, an environmental lawyer. (The Illinois EPA has since said it will revise the draft in light of this issue.)

After the story broke in June, Ettinger, representing the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Chicago River, filed an intent to sue the Trump company. Two months later, the state’s attorney general, Lisa Madigan, sued Trump Tower. (Madigan’s office issued a similar complaint in 2012, and the Trump company paid a $46,000 fine.) This time, Madigan invited the groups Ettinger represents to participate in the lawsuit.

The Trump Organization, owned by President Trump and run by his sons and another executive, owns the Chicago property. The organization has hired a law firm and issued a statement calling the suit politically motivated. River advocates disagree.

“We can’t have somebody radically violating their permits,” says John Quail, director of watershed planning for the nonprofit Friends of the Chicago River. “If everybody did, it would have a huge impact on the river.”

In order for the Chicago River to become fishable and swimmable by 2030, a goal set by the city’s Metropolitan Planning Council two years ago, everyone using the river needs to do their part—even the building with the president’s name on it.

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