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A Climate-Resilient Future for the South Branch of the Chicago River

Shedd Aquarium is working alongside partner organizations and community residents to reimagine, research and rewild the South Branch of the Chicago River. This stretch of the river flows southwest from downtown through neighborhoods including Chinatown, Pilsen, Bridgeport and McKinley Park.

A black-crowned night heron sits in a tree.
Six people kayaking on Chicago's south branch

We Are Expanding Learning Opportunities and Recreational Access:

  • To explore the river ecosystem and identify ways our shared efforts with communities can help to address environmental and equity challenges.
  • To enable more Chicagoans to enjoy recreation like canoeing, kayaking, birding and fishing.
    • In 2022, Shedd welcomed over 250 area residents to a Chicago River Biodiversity Day event at Park 571 in Bridgeport for science activities, musical engagements and screen-printing by local teaching artists and organizations, kayaking, fishing and more.
    • Shedd facilitated canoe and kayak outings for about 100 nearby residents to experience the joy of exploring the river on the water.
  • Since 2018, Shedd has led kayak tours of the Wild Mile on the North Branch of the Chicago River to connect people to the innovative conservation work of Urban Rivers. Shedd has also provided financial support for the installation of floating wetlands and boardwalk on the Wild Mile.
Map of Shedd's work on Chicago's South River Branch

We Are Improving River Health and Supporting Biodiversity and Climate Resiliency:

  • To create new habitat and bolster existing natural areas for wildlife above and below the water’s surface.
    • In 2022, Shedd installed over 3,000 square feet of floating wetland habitats with local nonprofit Urban Rivers and volunteers from the community.
    • Since 2017, Shedd has facilitated stewardship events at Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown with community volunteers to remove invasive plants and litter and to support native biodiversity.
  • To support communities in stewarding and protecting natural resources, expanding native habitat and mitigating impacts of climate change such as flooding.
Austin researching water quality on Chicago's south branch
Cunks of rock and concrete form a rough break wall in Lake Michigan. A great blue heron stands on the rock, its head lifted high as it surveys its surroundings.

We Are Collecting Data and Monitoring River Ecology:

  • To build a shared understanding of habitat quality and wildlife populations.
    • In 2022, Shedd scientists found that a higher diversity of fish species spawn in the South Branch of the Chicago River, which we believe is due to the varied habitats found within Bubbly Creek and nearby unused barge slips.
  • To generate ecological and water quality data that guides future conservation efforts.
    • In 2023, Shedd researchers along with partners are tracking where fish move so we can better understand where key spawning grounds are as well as where fish overwinter during Chicago’s coldest months. 
Three people working on tubing system on Chicago's south branch

History

For generations, the Chicago River has been known as a polluted, neglected body of water. Starting in the mid-1800s, the river was heavily polluted by the slaughterhouses, steel mills, leather plants and others that dumped their industrial waste directly into the river. The river was also drastically changed as it was dredged, channelized and widened. Steel walls were installed in place of natural riparian shorelines in many areas. These changes to the river favored urbanization and industry uses over the needs and well-being of nearby communities and wildlife.

Women playing music for group at Chicago river diversity day
Shedd employee shows child samples at Chicago river diversity day

But, the Chicago River Is Resilient

The passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 along with the efforts of local leaders, advocates and conservationists have contributed to drastic improvements to the health of the river. Today, more than 60 species of fish are known to live in the river — a huge increase from when the river’s water quality was at its worst. Many view it once again as a lifeblood flowing through our communities and city. More and more people are connecting with the river through kayaking, fishing, walking and dining along the river’s edge.

Rows of kayaks sit on side walks of Chicago's south branch

Shedd Is Grateful to Work in Collaboration with Many Partners Including:

Chicago Park District, Urban Rivers, Friends of the Chicago River, Ping Tom Memorial Park Advisory Council, South Branch Park Advisory Council, The Freshwater Lab at University of Illinois-Chicago, Purdue University - Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Questions about this project? Contact us at [email protected].