The extraction, transportation, refining and consumption of fossil fuels all cause damage to water. With the million gallons of heavy tar sands that spilled into the Kalamazoo River; the refinery explosion in Superior, Wisconsin; or the continued risks of Line 5 and the push to expand Line 3, the Great Lakes has experienced considerable damage. The ongoing risks of fossil fuels exacerbate other issues, including urban flooding, pollution, crumbling infrastructure, and threats to our drinking water.
While unlearning is necessary for a paradigm shift in how we imagine and interact with water, there are things we can do at the individual and community levels to implement environmental justice, green practices, conservation, clean drinking water, reconstructed wetlands, reduced urban flooding, local food markets, decreased pollution, and renewable energy sources.
As the warming of the planet accelerates, increased and intensified rainfall overwhelms the Great Lakes region. Chicago, like many cities across the world, has a combined sewer system. This means that storm drains connect with the sewers that fill with water from your home. More and more, the capacity of this system is breached by rain events. When sewers fill, there is nowhere for the waste water to go but up, often causing significant urban flooding that infiltrates basements and overruns city streets.
You can work to prevent flooding in your neighborhood by:
- Regularly cleaning the tops of storm drains on the street
- Capturing water outside your home with a rain barrel or cistern.
- Planting trees and deep-rooted plants that soak up water. Organizations like the Center for Neighborhood Technology can help low-income families and neighborhoods with the cost of planting. Midwest Grows Green also has resources for building rain gardens, cultivating prairie plants, and transitioning to natural lawn care.
- Holding off on laundry, dishes and even showering during rainfall. To learn more, Friends of the Chicago River offers additional guidance for the safest rainy day behaviors. Click here to Become RainReady.
- Replacing impermeable surfaces like sidewalks and driveways with permeable pavement that absorbs rain and helps to recharge groundwater. In Chicago, you can propose and vote for projects like this to be implemented with your Alderperson’s neighborhood funds through participatory budgeting.
- Working with local leadership to install reservoirs and rain gardens.
Although it may seem like you will never again see what you pour down the drain, everything we wash away reappears in rivers or streams. Increasingly, the contents of drains reach our drinking water. As a result, you should carefully read the ingredients in your home products. Take a look at your laundry detergent, personal care products and cleaning supplies. Do they contain things that you would like to drink? If not, you can switch to more natural products like Meliora. You can also make your own products.
It is also crucial to keep pharmaceuticals out of the water. Human medications are rewiring the DNA of aquatic animals, even causing fish and frogs to switch sexes amidst their lives. Don’t flush unused medications. Instead, take them to a pharmaceutical drop-off. Check here for a list of locations in Chicago. Click here for those across the United States. Many drugstores and pharmacies also take back pharmaceuticals.
The movement to eat locally has taught us how to reduce the use of fossil fuels in transporting and packaging food. Farmers markets offer healthier ways to procure food on multiple levels.
You can learn more about local farmers markets by visiting:
Eating from your ecosystem can also mean availing yourself of newly arrived species like bighead carp. These groups make it easier for you to enjoy Silverfin (i.e. carp):
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
You can learn more about Silverfin and Dirk’s famous carp burger recipe here.
Every straw, plastic water bottle and takeout utensil will outlive each one of us. Rather than disappear, these plastics simply break down into ever smaller pieces until they become microplastics that are too small to be filtered out of drinking water. All those single-use plastics sitting on beaches and shores will turn up again in your drinking water and in your body. Another problem is that plastic attracts bacteria that can cause public health emergencies. It’s important to keep in mind that less than 10% of plastic is recycled with most simply shipped to other countries or left to fester locally. In both cases, these plastics contaminate waterways and harm humans and animals.
Individuals can help keep their water clean by avoiding single-use plastics and look for non-plastic packaging where and when available. Join or sponsor a beach cleanup such as Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt a Beach or the Shedd Aquarium’s Action Days.
Shiny green lawns come at a cost to our water quality. Each month, 12,240 gallons of water are used on average per household each month. 40 million acres of turf grass exist in the lower 48 States – the single largest crop in the US. Additionally, most grass is coaxed into existence by fertilizers and pesticides. Rainstorms strip these chemicals from lawns and wash them into waterways where they fuel dead zones.
Consider switching grass to native landscapes or food gardens. Here’s a how-to guide.
Many people don’t realize that bottled water is less regulated than the water in your tap. Bottled water is also connected to large systemic issues. Private companies are actively privatizing water, a public good. The Nestlé corporation pumps up to 400 gallons per minute, or 576,000 gallons per day, of public waters for its Ice Mountain brand. Brought to Michigan with $10 million in state and local tax abatements in 2001, Nestlé pays a mere $200 a year to Michigan while reaping billions in profits.
At the same time, Michigan water systems falter after decades of disinvestment. Harmful “forever” chemicals are being discovered throughout the groundwater in the Great Lake State even as households struggle with unpaid bills and water shutoffs.
What if Michigan bottled (in biodegradable packaging) and sold its water instead of Nestlé? With profit margins of over 200% for bottled water, Michigan’s water could support its people! In addition to poor water quality, plastic bottle waste adds to the pollution of our waterways. If you are not dependent on bottled water for a (relatively) safe water source, then don’t buy bottled water. Instead, you can filter the water in your home.
You can try these various options for filtering your water:
- Attach a filter to the tap
- Install an under-the-sink system with multiple filters
- Invest in a large filter for water as it enters your house.
- Check to see if the service line into your home is made of lead. If so, then make sure that your filter is certified NSF/ANSI Standard 42 or 43.
Even a pitcher-style filter can get lead particles out. The Environmental Working Group Tap Water Database can be helpful in choosing the right filter.
The Freshwater Lab is inspired by the work of groups such as:
Blacks in Green
FLOW for Water
Little Village Environmental Justice Organization
Milwaukee Water Commons
People for Community Recovery
Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (P.E.R.R.O.)
Sacred Keepers Sustainability Lab
Southeast Environmental Task Force
Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke
Southeast Youth Alliance
We the People of Detroit
See here for a list of groups in various Great Lake states.
Neighborhoods along the Chicago Area Waterway System are being rezoned and redeveloped. To date, too much of the planning process occurs without proper community input. Chicago’s Blacks in Green invites agencies to present to its Black Water Council. You can take this work further by showing up to community meetings, making your voice heard out loud and online, and disseminating the information to your friends and family members.
Chicago’s Industrial Corridor Modernization Initiative and Great Rivers initiative are two significant ways in which waterways and communities are changing.
If you and your community are dissatisfied with current planning processes, then consider hosting your own meeting and inviting planners, architects and public officials to present to you.
Start to Shift Your Energy Source
The time for a Just Transition to renewable energy is now!
While we work to generate and procure renewable, non-extractive energy for our own lives, we must push every scale of government and business to shift subsidy and support away from fossil fuels while prioritizing the retraining and prioritization of workers. Fossil fuel corporations achieved their status by ushering us into the mess of climate catastrophe through unwavering governmental support. It’s time to shift our sources of energy and collectively democratize the institutions that distribute them. We can also act on the individual level by using renewable energy at home and taking public transportation when possible.
It is important to filter water, but for the long-term the lead pipes that service homes and schools must be replaced. We know the damage that lead exposure can cause and all the jobs created when a municipality upgrades its pipes. Get the lead out of plumbing!
In Illinois, you can stay apprised of current legislation by visiting:
Scientists predict that heavy rainfall will continue and accelerate, overwhelming concrete infrastructures built to keep cities from flooding. Federal infrastructure funding is badly needed across the United States. As we advocate for this funding, steps can be taken at a local level to create green infrastructure.
Green infrastructure includes reconstructed wetlands that hold and filter water; deep-rooted plants in rain gardens; trees; green roofs; bioswales and small-scale water recycling units.
When the city builds or sells to developers, insist that green infrastructure be part of the plan. The public good still matters in private developments and nobody wants their home, business or local stores to flood.
On the municipal level, you can advocate for reduction of plastic in public spaces and at events. Some events provide, sell or rent reusable cups and dishware instead of generating mountains of single-use plastic.
To date, the American orientation toward water and related ecosystems has been largely violent and rooted in the settler-colonial origins of the nation, which saw the world in terms of land to be conquered and resources to be extracted. As toxins and pollutants pour into drinking water and impair the health of an increasing number of people, this foundational harm is coming home to roost.
Without an honest appraisal of how we reached the point of climate catastrophe, we will continue to support the same systems of oppression and make the same mistakes. Such examination requires addressing how Indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from their land, treated with an intent of annihilation and cut-off from productive interdependence with the natural world.
Processes of decolonizing public space include removing statues and monuments to violent settlers, changing street and place names, acknowledging presence on Indigenous land and elevating Indigenous leadership to help us restructure our relationships with place.
Frank Ettawageshik, executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan and water wiseman, walks the halls of Lansing, Michigan and Washington D.C. with two constitutions in his jacket pocket – that of the United States and of his tribe, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Both are relevant to Indigenous sovereignty. The Commerce Clause (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3) of the U.S. Constitution confers authority to Congress to “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes.” The listing of foreign Nations, several States and Indian Tribes attests to the sovereignty of all three recognized as preexisting the constitution itself. Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution states that “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” Ettawageshik emphasizes that “supreme Law of the Land” means that nothing can contradict or abrogate treaties made with Indigneous peoples.
Along with knowledge of the documents themselves, Ettawageshik brings a vital interpretive frame to both of his constitutions. The U.S. Constitution does not give rights to Indigenous nations. Instead, he explains, it speaks to how Indigenous peoples gave rights to the new Americans with the query of how they were going to live with what the tribes already had. When land was sold or granted to the U.S. federal government, Indian treaty partners reserved their rights of fishing, hunting and gathering. Odawa fishing rights, preserved in the 1836 Treaty of Washington, are not based on property rights. They insist, rather, on the right to live with the fish. Living with the fish involves the right to sing, dance, eat, and exist in tandem with them. Anything that impedes the relationship with the fish, such as a “do not consume” mercury advisory violates fishing rights.
Honoring treaties and the rights of Indigenous peoples is the law, if not the practice, of the United States. Respecting these rights and treaties not only upholds the law, but also confers benefit to all who share water, air and earth with Indigenous peoples. When native relationships with fish are upheld, the watershed is healthier and better able to support life now and in the future. The free exercise of Indigenous sovereignty can stop harmful pipelines, mines and industrial agriculture facilities thereby curbing carbon emissions and slowing climate change. It can protect the very right to breathe.
Whose land are you sitting on?