Troubled Waters: The Funders Cleaning Up Chicago Waterways

Documented in early 1790, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable is considered to be the first permanent resident of Chicago. But it wasn’t called Chicago back then; it was known Eschecagou by local Native American tribes, which roughly translates to “the land of smelly waters.” Situated along Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, Chicago has a long-standing reputation for unclean waterways. However, one local funder collaboration keeps kicking in funds to improve that reputation and the water sources around the city.

The following funding partners have joined forces with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to clean up waterways in the Chicago and Calumet region: ArcelorMittal, the Chicago Community Trust, Crown Family Philanthropies, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Joyce Foundation, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the Wrigley Company Foundation. Together, these partners are known as the Chi-Cal Rivers Fund, and they recently announced five projects that will receive $1.1 million in grant funding. This partnership was established in 2013, and this is the second round of annual grants made.

Related - IP's Funding Guide for Marine and Rivers

This latest batch of money is focused on reducing storm water runoff, improving fish and wildlife habitats, improving public use opportunities, and supporting wildlife projects within the community. As part of the deal, the new grant recipients will match this funding with an additional $2.5 million, for a total of $3.6 million to work with. Here’s a bit about these environmentally focused grant recipients are and what they’re doing for waterways around Chicago.

  • City of Gary - $259,263 to install 43,200 square feet of green storm water infrastructure at 27 public sites throughout the city
  • Chicago Park District - $259,000 to develop a new 4-acre riverfront park along the south branch of the Chicago River
  • South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association - $235,295 to construct 6 acres of wetlands that will add 1.5 million gallons of storm water retention in Blue Island
  • Friends of the Chicago River - $175,000 to install 33 in-stream habitat structures and substrates to enhance fish and aquatic life populations along a half-mile reach of the Chicago River main stem
  • Lake County Forest Preserve District - $171,442 to restore 178 acres along the north branch of the Chicago River at the biodiversity-rich Middlefork Savanna

Several of the funders in this collaboration have remained on the forefront of IP’s radar, on both the local giving and national environmental scenes. The Joyce Foundation, for example, has a grant program area for Great Lakes Protection and Restoration with goals of preventing the introduction and spread of invasive aquatic species and reducing nonpoint source pollution. And the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation has a Chicago Region Land Conservation grant program area that prioritizes Calumet, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Grand Kankakee, Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

But as a unit, the Chi-Cal Rivers Fund is a public-private partnership that has some serious connections and noteworthy resources. The Fund partners are scheduled to announce the next Requests for Proposals in June 2015. Learn more about how your local environmental nonprofit can tap into these resources for the next grant cycle by visiting the Chi-Cal Rivers Fund website or emailing Program Director Todd Hogrefe at with general questions.