Backward to the Future

Moving forward with the Chicago River

We can address problems of flooding and drought by building systems that reflect 21st century knowledge as they facilitate economic growth and more widespread financial stability.  We can revitalize our rivers as corridors of clean industry and innovation.  The perfect place to begin the transformation is along America’s most engineered waterway: the backward Chicago River.  

El Paso’s Water Purification Facility is under design to become the first pipe to pipe system. It consists of a multi-barrier approach to water treatment that will produce up to 12 mgd of purified, renewable, drought proof water. (Photo/Carlos A. Briano, Lead Public Affairs Coordinator, El Paso Water)

We envision a water recycling industry that turns wastewater into clean water available for agriculture, industry, and data cooling centers.  Water recycling plants can anchor industrial complexes that simultaneously capture methane and biogas to feed the grid and harvest minerals to be reused in products.  As the MWRD does with its fertilizer Ostara, phosphorus and nitrogen can be harvested from wastewater, used in food production and kept from fueling the explosion of harmful algal blooms that become dead zones.  Along with the jobs in building these systems, water recycling complexes will host permanent, skilled work.

Chicago’s diversion of Lake Michigan water, along with its copious rain and aquifers of greywater, is pumped at great cost into the Gulf of Mexico.  The migration of bighead and silver carp has brought renewed attention to this system.  As ACE looks to build a wall in the water, other proposals have considered restoring the divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi basins.  These proposals puzzled about what would happen to Chicago’s wastewater.  We propose that it would move from existing treatment plants to recycling complexes and into pipes that supply farms and industries with needed water.  The water would be treated to a drinking water level should drought become so bad that it is required.  However, this water treated to the same level as drinking water would be sold to bulk users of water.  Recycled water would be available to bulk users at rates considerably more attractive than the rate for source water.

By generating revenue where we currently pay to ship waste, the sale of recycled water can support water affordability plans.  Rates for the water used for drinking, cooking, and bathing require revision so that they are equitable and affordable.  No one in the United States, not to mention the water rich Great Lakes basin, should go without water in their home.  Commercial and industrial users of water, who make a profit from this public commons, should have higher rates.  Should they choose recycled water, then they can enjoy considerable savings and support this local market.

Grafton, Ilinois (The Telegraph Photo/John Badman)

The savings will ripple: no need for a billion dollar wall in the Des Plaines River, fewer losses in urban flooding, no looming crisis of aquifer collapse and devastation of agriculture, a strategy for reducing the town-leveling deluges along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.  Rather than puzzling over it and paying to export waste, we need to reuse it at an industrial scale. Not even the high-flying Silver carp can jump across a recycling complex.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel net Silver carp jumping in the Fox River. (Photo/Ryan Hagerty, USFWS)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel net Silver carp jumping in the Fox River. (Photo/Ryan Hagerty, USFWS)

The Great Lakes region with its copious water should be a thriving place in the 21st century.  Without ways to address flooding and sewage, we will not achieve this status.  The federal government supports water reuse in the Western United States as a solution for drought, we should attract similar funding to address flooding in the Midwest and to anchor our post-COVID 19 economic recovery.

In a world increasingly saturated in petrochemicals, there is no longer an away where we can send our waste.  Currently, we treat precious rain like garbage, hurting humans and their ecosystems all along the way.  In the City of Big Shoulders and gargantuan water infrastructure, we cannot stay focused on narrow, antiquated plans.  We need to pioneer new systems that allow us to survive and thrive.  Chicago should be the capital of the Water Belt.

Back to Top