Density currents in the Chicago River: Characterization, effects on water quality, and potential sources

P. Ryan Jackson, Carlos M. García, Kevin A. Oberg, Kevin K. Johnson, Marcelo H. García

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Bidirectional flows in a river system can occur under stratified flow conditions and in addition to creating significant errors in discharge estimates, the upstream propagating currents are capable of transporting contaminants and affecting water quality. Detailed field observations of bidirectional flows were made in the Chicago River in Chicago, Illinois in the winter of 2005-06. Using multiple acoustic Doppler current profilers simultaneously with a water-quality profiler, the formation of upstream propagating density currents within the Chicago River both as an underflow and an overflow was observed on three occasions. Density differences driving the flow primarily arise from salinity differences between intersecting branches of the Chicago River, whereas water temperature is secondary in the creation of these currents. Deicing salts appear to be the primary source of salinity in the North Branch of the Chicago River, entering the waterway through direct runoff and effluent from a wastewater-treatment plant in a large metropolitan area primarily served by combined sewers. Water-quality assessments of the Chicago River may underestimate (or overestimate) the impairment of the river because standard water-quality monitoring practices do not account for density-driven underflows (or overflows). Chloride concentrations near the riverbed can significantly exceed concentrations at the river surface during underflows indicating that full-depth parameter profiles are necessary for accurate water-quality assessments in urban environments where application of deicing salt is common.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)130-143
Number of pages14
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - Aug 15 2008


  • Bidirectional flow
  • Chicago River
  • Chloride
  • Deicing salt
  • Density current
  • Gravity current

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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