On a muggy Thursday morning, after a day of rain and thunderstorms, Joseph Molina was quietly fishing by the South Branch of the Chicago River as young people lowered rowing boats into the water. Ducks paddled out of the way as another group from a veterans kayaking program rowed by.
“They need to clean up this creek,” said Molina, 63, as he reeled in a small, bright yellow fish and released it back into the water. The Humboldt Park resident said he fishes at Chicago’s Bubbly Creek three times a week to clear his mind.
“So, I just sit here and meditate and just throw in a line,” he said. “If I catch, I catch. If I don’t catch, it doesn’t bother me. I just catch and throw back in.” But he said the water is dirty, so the fish “don’t bite as they used to bite.”
A few steps from where Molina was fishing, trash and a few empty plastic bottles floated by the dock. A lone red shoe lay on top of a rock. Schools of small black fish dotted the murky surface.
The spot is mostly tranquil, apart from the activity of rowers and the rumbling of cars on the nearby Ashland Avenue Bridge. Near Park 571, which is at the turn of the Chicago River where it flows into Bubbly Creek, rows of houses line a quiet neighborhood. New ones are under construction.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin’s office recently announced $1 million in federal funding that will pay for habitat restoration and conservation efforts for Bubbly Creek in a project led by the Shedd Aquarium and the Chicago Park District.
A fork of the Chicago River that runs through Bridgeport is known as Bubbly Creek because the Union Stock Yards — which closed in 1971 — once dumped animal carcasses and parts into that portion of the river, causing bubbles to reach the surface of the water as the remains broke down.
The industrialization of the river also contaminated the waterway, according to Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action at the Shedd.
“And so with these couple of things happening in Bubbly Creek, at least early on, it really cut off wildlife access, residential or just regular human access and also really contaminated the health of the river,” she said.
Since then, improved city planning and industrial systems have allowed wildlife to gradually repopulate the creek and for people to move closer to the stretch of nature it offers.
“But there’s still a lot of work to be done, and that’s why we’re excited to be part of this project,” Wegner said.
Past studies have shown how sewage overflows and other forms of pollution can suffocate fish by quickly reducing oxygen levels in water.
There are at least 15 species of fish living in the South Branch of the river, according to research by the Shedd.
It is also home to different types of wildlife, such as beavers, muskrats, kingfishers, great blue herons and “all kinds of fish,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River.
“It’s just this really fascinating contrast between urban and wild,” she added.
“This project with the Shedd Aquarium and the money that Sen. Durbin was able to secure for them and the Park District is very much in, in our belief in Friends of the Chicago River, the kind of investment we want to see in the river,” Frisbie said.
Wegner explained that projects on the North Branch of the river such as the Wild Mile — where floating wetland habitats are being installed and education opportunities offered — are helping envision a healthier future for the river.
“And so we’re kind of replicating pieces of it on the South Branch. We will be installing floating wetlands on the South Branch,” she said. “At this point, we’re also just piloting some programs like getting people out on canoes and through our Chicago River Biodiversity Day. We’re bringing people to the space to get to know it a bit more.”
Matt Freer, assistant director of landscape at the Chicago Park District, said part of the project entails habitat restoration in parks along Bubbly Creek — Park 571, Canalport Riverwalk Park and Canal Origins Park — besides installing floating wetlands.
“Improving the habitat along the South Branch and along Bubbly Creek — the terrestrial habitat — can only have a positive impact on Bubbly Creek because it attracts more native birds, butterflies, insects, but it also cleans the water as the water runs down into the river,” Freer said.
So, some of Molina’s concerns about a cleaner creek may be addressed by the restoration project that Shedd and the Park District are undertaking.
Creating habitats for fish, crayfish, turtles, birds, snakes, otters and pollinators would benefit “both land and water,” Frisbie said. She also spoke about how investing in the river means so much more.
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“It’s an investment in the river system, but it’s also an investment in people, in public health, because human access to natural open spaces is demonstrated — study after study — to improve public health,” she said. “And so, it helps kids learn better in school, people have reduced anxiety when they’re out in nature, it reduces the urban heat island effect.”
Freer said all the asphalt and concrete in cities make them hotter, so plants and trees in urban areas help alleviate this heat. And native trees, shrubs and plants also help reduce the carbon in the atmosphere by absorbing it, since they can hold more of it than nonnative plants.
The native plants and rain gardens that would be planted in the parks around Bubbly Creek would also absorb more rainwater and reduce runoff into the river, Freer explained. This is especially important as climate change increases flooding and rainstorms.
Freer added it will take some time for the restoration project to reach completion — likely around three years.
But to many, it’s a process worth the wait.
“We have an obligation to make the river accessible and healthy for everybody so that we can all share in it,” Frisbie said. “And Bubbly Creek itself is this unique microcosm of industry and residential, and it’s just part of the fabric of Chicago’s history.”
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