Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Waste

An engineering feat more than a century ago created a host of problems for communities that depend on Lake Michigan for their water. But those problems also present opportunities.
by | April 22, 2013

Lake Michigan is the world's fifth-largest lake. By any stretch of the imagination, communities near its shores shouldn't be grappling with water-supply issues. But Chicago and its neighbors are.

The problem stems primarily from a remarkable engineering feat in 1900, when the flow of the Chicago River was reversed. This was done to reduce upstream contaminants from reaching Lake Michigan and polluting the region's major freshwater supply source. Of course, upstream communities weren't all that happy about receiving Chicago's contaminated water, which shows the trouble created by solutions that don't take into account effects across an entire system. Jump forward a century, and a complex web of interactions and problems has evolved around management of both water supply and wastewater.

Because "used" water -- from stormwater runoff and treated sewage effluent -- is not returned to the lake, the Northern Illinois region is unique among Great Lakes communities in that the volume of water that its communities can draw from the lake is capped under a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decree.

A Chicago-based nonprofit organization, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), is part of a collaborative effort to devise and implement better systemwide solutions. MPC's water program director, Josh Ellis, explains that while the most obvious solution -- re-reversing the flow of the Chicago and Calumet rivers back to their natural direction into Lake Michigan -- is possible from an engineering perspective, that would create new problems and likely cost billions of dollars.

Chicago, for example, would have to upgrade its sewer and stormwater systems. The water level of the Illinois River, which receives water downstream from the Chicago River, would drop, a possibility that concerns communities along the Illinois River's shores. Among a host of other factors, there's also the potential for invasive species to enter the Great Lakes from the Mississippi, causing both ecosystem and economic upheavals.

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Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute

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