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Say “CSO” in Chicago and most people will immediately think of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the truly world-class institution known by that acronym. Indeed, its URL is cso.org
Yet, in another realm — the one in which I now dwell and row — CSO stands for “combined sewer overflow,” the all-too-frequent occurrence when sewers that combine rainwater and sewage fill up and, unable to hold any more water, overflow into nearby rivers and streams. That form of CSO, both unwelcome and common in older cities, pours pollution from streets, yards, and catch basins mixed with sewage and wastewater from homes and businesses into our waterways, degrading our rivers and streams and posing threats to public health. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has 109 miles of Deep Tunnel and numerous reservoirs designed to capture billions of gallons of stormwater and reduce CSOs, with more efforts underway, but they remain a persistent challenge to urban centers with combined sewers, especially in this age of changing weather patterns and big storms.
How ironic, then, that CSO signals a hallmark of excellence and culture, and of aging infrastructure and ecosystem degradation!
I raise these points because the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has launched an ambitious and exciting Rivers Festival to highlight the watery connection between nature and culture. “From the time of the earliest settlers in our area, the Chicago River…defined the city of Chicago and the ways it would grow,” writes Phillip Huscher in the Symphony program book. “In the late nineteenth century, Chicago became the busiest port in the country, a great and indispensable conduit for people, goods, and ideas – the role it has played over and over again in cities and towns around the world. Our age-old understanding of rivers as a kind of vital arterial system for the world has provoked…”