Toolkit to Reclaim Your Water

Whether you are appalled or intrigued by the Chicago River and canal, it belongs to you. According to Public Trust law, surface waters — those waters you can see above ground like rivers and lakes — are collectively held by those who live around them, other species in the ecosystem and future generations. Now that you know your role as steward of the water, what can you do? We have put this toolkit together in order to guide you. Whether you’re ready to tackle systemic change or begin with individual actions, join The Backward River team in reimagining what is possible along our waters. 

Remember to share this project with your friends, family and neighbors. Let us know what you think. Send us an email with your thoughts, images, art and reflections.


Chicago, like cities across the world, has a combined sewer system.  This means that the storm drains that capture rain from the street connect underground with the sewers that take water from your home.  When sewers fill, there is nowhere for them to go but back up.  You can limit this form of flooding by holding off on laundry, dishes, even showering during rainfall.

Friends of the Chicago River can guide you through the best rainy day behaviors

Although it may seem like you will never again see what you wash down the drain, everything we pour appears again in rivers or streams.  Increasingly, the contents of drains reach our drinking water.  Read the ingredients in your laundry detergent, personal care products and cleaning supplies.  Do they contain things that you would like to drink?  If not, then switch to more natural products or make your own.

Kate and Mike at Meliora have created some effective and water safe home products.

You can learn how to become drain-sane and make your own affordable cleansers on

Keep meds 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, take them to a pharmaceutical drop-off.  Check here for a list of locations in Chicago and 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.  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).

Dirk’s Fish

Fin Gourmet Foods

Illinois Department of Natural Resources

You can learn more about Silverfin and Dirk’s famous carp burger recipe here.

Every straw, plastic water bottle or fork for takeout will outlive you. These plastics never disappear. They simply break down into ever smaller pieces until they become microplastics. Among the problems with microplastics is that they can be 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. Keep plastic out of your water.

Don’t buy single use plastic.

Join or sponsor a beach cleanup such as Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt a Beach or the Shedd Aquarium’s Action Days.

12,240 gallons of water are used on average per household each month for lawns.  40 million acres of turf grass exist in the lower 48 States – the single largest crop in the US.  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.

As the warming of the planet accelerates, the Great Lakes region, like many others, experiences increasing rain events.  A rain event occurs when high volumes of water fall in a short period of time and overwhelm storage capacities.

You can work to prevent flooding in your neighborhood by:

  • Regularly cleaning the tops of storm drains on the street
  • 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
  • Become RainReady
  • Replace 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.
  • Work with local leadership to install reservoirs and rain gardens.

Communities along the Chicago Area Waterway System are being reimagined, rezoned and redeveloped.

Chicago’s Industrial Corridor Modernization Initiative and Great Rivers initiative are two significant ways in which waterways and communities are changing.

Show up to community meetings, make your voice heard out loud and online, disseminate the information to your friends and family members.  Too much of the planning process occurs without proper community input.  Take a cue from Chicago’s Blacks in Green that invites agencies to present to its Black Water Council.  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.

Currently, we are witnessing two broad trends in municipal water systems. The first is disenfranchisement of the public from its drinking water and sewer infrastructure. This occurs through water shutoffs to homes for non-payment, lack of bill affordability, the contamination of drinking water, unpublished water quality reports, deregulation of water pollution and crumbling water infrastructure. The second trend is privatization in which the municipality and the public loses control over their water systems. This occurs through the bottling of water by global corporations and selling it back to residents at astronomical prices. It also occurs when corporations take over water and sewer systems. Most municipalities privatize because federal funding has been slashed by 74% since 1977 and because they do not claim ownership of the revenue streams from public water.

The tragedy is that private corporations tend not to fix the systems but to run them into the ground leaving residents with higher bills, less public accountability and lead pipe crises (often from transitions to ‘cheaper’ sources of water, as happened in University Park, Illinois in 2019). Worst of all, the municipality loses significant revenue as the corporations reap record profits. For example, as the State of Illinois faces massive budget shortfalls, the private corporation (Illinois) American Water has achieved an all-time high of profit shares.  This is in part due to laws that enable water corporations to increase their profits by acquiring new water and wastewater systems. Listen to The Water Chronicles podcast for a deep dive into water privatization in Illinois.

  • If you’re in Illinois, support SB 2745 to require a public referendum before selling off a public water or sewer system to a private corporation.

If you are not dependent on it for a (relatively) safe water source, then don’t buy bottled water. Instead, filter the water in your home. You have various options from a filter that attaches to the tap, an under-the-sink system with multiple filters or a larger 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.

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, call your legislators to urge them to support legislation such as:

If your town, city or region’s water is run by a private corporation, you can join the push to remunicipalize water systems, which means to bring them back under public control. This has been done successfully in cities around the world, consistently leading to savings for both municipalities and their water customers. It often brings other social benefits as well, including improved public accountability and transparency, more equitable water access and increased investment in water system safety.

Keeping water public involves ensuring that water is affordable. Advocate for a water affordability plan in your city or town.  We the People DetroitUS Water AllianceFood and Water Watch can all help in understanding and structuring a water affordability plan.

Scientists predict that heavy rainfall will continue and accelerate, overwhelming concrete infrastructures built to keep cities afloat. 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.

Individuals can help keep their water clean by avoiding single-use plastics and look for non-plastic packaging and items, where and when available.  On the municipal level, you can advocate for reduction of plastic in public spaces and at events.  Some events provide/sell/rent reusable cups and dishware instead of generating mountains of single-use plastic.  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.

As we saw during the Flint, Michigan water crisis, many corporations take opportunity in catastrophe.  Naomi Klein named this disaster capitalism, which reaps significant profits for a small group of investors while the general public and the poor, in particular, suffer. The multinational Veolia corporation was at work when Flint switched its water source while building a new pipeline financed from fees leveraged on the struggling city.

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former U.S. President Donald Trump granted the Taiwanese Foxconn corporation 7 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan (5.8 million earmarked for Foxconn, 2.7 million lost through evaporation and manufacturing) to build liquid crystal display panels at a planned campus in the village of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin.  Walker further promised the Taiwanese company $4 billion in state incentives in exchange for allure of $10 billion private investment and as many as 13,000 jobs. Using eminent domain to declare both new and longstanding homes blighted, an area was cleared for a factory. No factory was built.

The Verge uncovered that Foxconn “shows no signs of manufacturing LCDs in the foreseeable future.” The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), which oversees the distribution, denied the company its first installment of the nearly $3 billion refundable tax credits because it didn’t fulfill its contract. The Verge reported that state and local governments spent at least $400 million on the project, mostly on land and infrastructure the company will likely never need. Foxconn listed approximately $300 million in capital expenses at the end of 2019. It employed only 281 people, rather than the 2,080 it was supposed to, or even the 520 it needed to employ to get tax subsidies. The Verge’s investigation found that Foxconn recruited large numbers of local college students and foreign recent graduates on visas late in 2019 as it tried to hit the employment threshold needed to receive subsidies, only to lay off many employees once the deadline passed.

In contrast to a Taiwanese company heavily subsidized by American taxpayers that has evaded the terms of its contract, what might Wisconsinites do with seven million gallons a day of Lake Michigan water and billions in incentives?

Across the lake in Michigan, a similar story unfolds as 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!

Cities, states and the federal government all have agencies to monitor and, when necessary, halt pollutants from entering the water supply.  Under constant fire from polluters, these agencies have been stripped of funding, power and influence.  Because our very health and survival amidst climate change relies on them, these agencies must be restored and staffed by scientific professionals.

As we continue to produce and repurpose goods and commodities, new standards must be set to preserve the water sources that remain viable.  Many factories and businesses receive tax abatements or direct subsidy by the public.  This funding must support retrofit and innovation that curbs pollution and prioritizes public and ecosystem health.

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 could well delay or prevent our region’s watery economic revival.

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 democratize the institutions that distribute them.

To date, the American orientation toward water and related ecosystems has been largely violent.  This may be 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 violence is coming home to roost.

As we look to heal our bodies and our environments, this foundational violence must be examined.  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?

What are industrial corridors and planned manufacturing districts?

Chicago organizes its industrial base into units of 26 Industrial Corridors (ICs) and 15 Planned Manufacturing Districts (PMDs). ICs are geographic areas across the city that have special planning designations (not zoning districts) to support industrial operations. They may include industrial and non-industrial zoning, providing some flexibility and uncertainty in planning.

Within 12 of these ICs, there are 15 PMDs that have specific zoning ordinances across the entire PMD area. They exclude residential development and some allow commercial development along their outer edges as buffer zones. Each PMD permits a variety of manufacturing uses outright, with no approval needed from the local Alderperson. For example, the Calumet River/Lake Calumet PMD is the only PMD that permits Hazardous Materials Disposal or Storage. As PMDs are nestled within ICs, when we refer to ICs going forward it will include ICs and PMDs, unless otherwise noted.

All ICs are connected to at least one form of transport – railways, highways or waterways – with many ICs accessing multiple transportation routes. Large stretches of the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS), particularly the South Branch and the Sanitary and Ship Canal, and the Calumet River have been engulfed by these industrial zones. The city and developers laud the industrial corridor system as essential to the region’s economy, protecting industrial land use and prioritizing the city’s strong manufacturing and wholesale trading sectors. But for communities living alongside ICs, the zoning and pollution allowances lead to compromised water, air and soil, as well as impaired public and mental health.

History of industrial corridors in Chicago

Chicago’s industrial corridors have been the site of labor organizing movements throughout history: the 1886 Haymarket Affair spurred by the fight for an eight-hour workday; the 1894 Pullman Strike that shut down railroad traffic nationwide; the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African American labor union in the U.S. formed in 1925 and eventually the first Black union to be recognized by the American Federation of Labor in 1935.

And yet, Chicago’s ICs & PMDs follow the all-too-familiar structure of environmental racism that has played out all over the U.S. Environmental racism is the disproportionate harm inflicted on Black, brown and Indigenous communities by polluting operations, hazardous waste sites and the destruction of land, water and community. In Chicago, Black, brown and Indigenous communities along the Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Cal-Sag Channel have been designated as fence line communities, areas with people living just outside of polluting operations who absorb the daily and compounded harms that result from extractive industries. The harms of environmental racism and the struggle for environmental justice have been well-documented, particularly through the work of Hazel Johnson, “the mother of the environmental justice movement;” Robert Bullard, “the father of environmental justice;” and more recently, Dorceta E. Taylor and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

In the Chicago region, this exploitation is traced back at least to the early 1800s when colonizers violently forced Indigenous peoples off the land they had been living in relationship with for centuries, particularly the Council of the Three Fires: Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi as well as the Miami, Ho-Chunk and Menominee Nations. It is etched into the spaces of the city that have been segregated, polluted and deprived for decades. And it is reinforced in 2020 with ongoing hazardous pollutants spewed into communities of color across the city.

Industrial operations are clustered in places with easy transportation access for moving goods and raw materials as well as dumping waste, so speculators and government money built up Chicago’s earliest industrial areas at key waterway and railway points. Railroads spread across the Chicago landscape starting in the mid-1800s, with the city soon becoming the most prominent railroad center in the country. In 1865 the Union Stockyards opened southwest of downtown on what was initially (pre-Sanitary and Ship Canal) the southern tip of the Chicago River. It soon became known as Bubbly Creek, owing to the gases that still bubble in the creek today from the millions of pounds of animal waste and blood discharged by sprawling meatpacking plants. In the 1870s, the federal government provided funding to turn the Calumet River on the far Southeast Side into an industry-friendly port of entry, making it deeper and wider and adding piers, and the first steel mill of many opened in the area in 1875. The railroad, meatpacking and steel industries, and the labor movement that rose with it, were foundational to the building of Chicago.

From there, more industrial clusters expanded along waterways and railways, growing exponentially along the Sanitary and Ship Canal and Cal-Sag Channel which forged an artificial connection between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to carry raw materials and flush away waste. Midwestern cities like Chicago expanded throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s due to major factors like the rise of industrial manufacturing, waves of immigration from Europe, and later the Great Migration of African Americans from the Southern United States to the North and West.  However, the manufacturing jobs that fueled such rapid growth began to decline in the 1980s as corporations sought to escape the power of labor unions by relocating to southern U.S. towns and locations in the global south. Many cite this as the launch of the race to the bottom. In an effort to retain industries and appease business owners, the Chicago Plan Commission in 1992 began officially designating industrial clusters as formal Industrial Corridors (ICs) and Planned Manufacturing Districts (PMDs).

The human and environmental costs of prioritizing these industrial operations are high. In 2018 the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and other community organizations collaborated to produce a Cumulative Impacts Map which visualizes “the high cumulative vulnerabilities to environmental pollution borne by environmental justice communities in the city.” To do this, the map combines environmental characteristics of each census block with characteristics of that population which make people more susceptible to harm from pollution. For example, the 11 environmental factors include diesel particulate matter (higher near ICs and highways due to diesel trucks transporting goods) along with proximity to Superfund sites and proximity to treatment storage disposal facilities (common as hazardous operations are specifically confined to ICs). Other environmental factors include the cancer risk from air toxins, the likelihood of lead paint in homes, and the rate of particulate matter in the air.

Many of these toxins ultimately end up in the waterways, whether directly from industrial sites or through runoff. Polluted waters can also back up in people’s homes and in the streets during urban flooding events, some of the highest rates of flooding in the city have been reported in the Calumet area.

Characteristics of a vulnerable community include children under 5 and adults over age 64, the ratio of low-income households and minority populations (more likely to have previously absorbed environmental harms), and the rates of people linguistically isolated, or those who speak limited to no English. With all these factors compounded, it is clear that the communities experiencing the highest burden are the majority Black and brown communities surrounding ICs on the Southwest Side along the South Branch and Sanitary and Ship Canal as well as those on the Southeast Side around the Calumet River and Lake Calumet.

Reinforcing Environmental Racism through the Industrial Corridor Modernization Initiative (ICMI)

Currently, the Chicago River is the site of the most ambitious real estate projects in the city’s history. A series of megadevelopments mushroom on banks where factories and railyards once stood. Fortified by $2.4 billion of public funding, the largest of these spores — Lincoln Yards and the 78 — are remaking entire neighborhoods in their glassy image. Meanwhile the city is reinforcing polluting industries along the Sanitary and Ship Canal and Calumet River. This re-shaping of the river system emerges from the City of Chicago’s Industrial Corridor Modernization Initiative (ICMI), launched in 2016 to create plans to “guide future public and private investments within each corridor.”

The city wields its powerful levers of tax breaks and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds to drive these corridor plans. TIF districts are geographic zones where some property tax revenue is set aside to be doled out for public projects or to subsidize private development supposedly benefiting the neighborhood. At the end of 2019, the city’s 140 TIF districts held a total of $1.79 billion. Both the publicly funded up-market housing and heavy industry planned for ICs have met with strenuous objections by the people who live and work in those communities. The ICMI has the cumulative effect of fortifying environmental racism across Chicago.

The trouble with the ICMI lies in problematic methods of basing plans on the “current trends” already underway within each corridor. Trends, we should remember, are neither objective nor fixed. The Department of Planning claims that the industries currently employing the most people led them to identify these trends and the likely future direction of each IC. But are there no other metrics that could be used to extrapolate trends? Do the devaluing of property, the pollution of water and the poisoning of human beings not belong in these calculations? What about the subsidies and the rights to pollute doled out to these companies? Do they not have value? Might ICMI provide the perfect opportunity to study whether seeding innovative green industries will yield more jobs and long-term profits?

How might industry, in Chicago and around the world shift amid conditions of climate change? Is it not time to heed the international scientific consensus that all nations, and industrial countries in particular, need to drastically reduce carbon emissions and immediately begin converting economies away from fossil fuels and extractive practices? And where in this trend calculation are the voices of those who live and work around each corridor? Given that Chicago and its corporations have targeted Black, brown and Indigenous communities as their industrial sacrifice zones since the founding of the city, this environmental racism will be once again reinforced if ICMI planners follow their narrowly-defined and antiquated trends.

In Little Village and Pilsen, for example, a coalition of environmental justice organizations including LVEJO and Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) succeeded in 2012 at shutting down the Crawford and Fisk coal plants in their corridors after a decadelong fight. LVEJO put together plans for the former Crawford coal plant to make a just transition into a site catalyzing improved health, job access and green space, all things that emerged through deep community engagement. But in 2017 the community learned that the city brokered a backroom deal with Hilco Redevelopment Partners to purchase and redevelop the property into a massive logistics facility, whose constant truck traffic would add to the already poor air quality in the area. Frustrations mounted when Hilco was later awarded $19.7 million in tax breaks for the project, more than they spent on buying the property. Instead of carrying out the community’s vision for a green economic corridor, LVEJO is once again fighting for their right to breath.

In recent years, the industrial corridors in or near communities that have become whiter and wealthier due to gentrification began shifting in operation toward tech, management and business support services. It is no coincidence that these industries pay more and pollute less. Meanwhile the city allows and incentivizes polluting industries like manufacturing and logistics to operate and expand with minimal accountability in Black and brown communities along the Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Calumet River.

This entrenchment of environmental racism is also playing out in real time with the proposed move of metal scrapper General Iron from the North Branch, and future home to the Lincoln Yards mega-development, to the Southeast Side on the Calumet River. Community activists are pressuring the city to deny permits for General Iron’s move, and in October 2020 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development agreed to look into a claim made by community activists that permitting this move into an already disinvested neighborhood violates the federal Fair Housing Act.

Dreaming of a New Corridor Future for All

A common misconception, reflected in ICMI’s goal of reinforcing industrial activities in certain areas of the city, is that dirty industries must locate somewhere. And the institutional racism baked into property valuations would tell us that polluting in areas with already low property values is the logical choice. The operative logic is that we can’t have jobs and a clean environment at the same time.

This logic can be unpacked in many ways. Within extractive capitalism, corporations maximize their profits by outsourcing their pollution to the public. Many polluting industries also receive public money in some form, from federal fossil fuel subsidies to city-level tax breaks. Essentially we, the public, pay corporations to pollute and then we pay to clean it up or we leave the pollution to damage our air, waterways and bodies. What if this public money actually tied them to improving their practices to reduce harm and wastes? Can thresholds of pollution be set and not exceeded? What promises of profit-sharing and cleanup must companies make amid zoning and tax discussions? What are the hidden costs of continued pollution and carbon release?

Given that many of these corporations frequently receive public money, they provide little revenue back to the city in the form of taxes. The other justification that politicians and developers brandish is the promise of jobs. But what types of jobs are they? What are the social costs of industrial jobs? How much does the public pay for each job? Warehouses like Amazon and the one Hilco hopes to build in Little Village often rely on part-time and temporary workers so they can pay low wages, withhold medical benefits, and limit the potential for unionization. Temp agencies in Chicago have alarming reputations for exploiting Black and Latinx workers. If these industries are buoyed by public money, offer mostly low-wage and dangerous jobs, and damage public health and the environment, what is the public getting out of these deals? Can the money be invested directly in the community, allowing production to be tied to location and thus factor in externalities? How can we create a clean industrial corridor? And how do we build community control into the planning and operations?

The communities of color who have been most harmed by environmental racism are at the forefront of combating these false narratives and pushing us to imagine a new world. Multiple visions exist for how we abandon these destructive practices, heal ourselves and the earth, and transition to an environmentally just world with green and sustaining jobs. Here we provide just a few examples which inspire us:

  • The Principles of Environmental Justice, adopted at the first multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991
  • The Green New Deal, a proposed national bill to massively shift the U.S. economy away from greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuels while creating millions of jobs in the process
  • Just Transition, which holds that those most affected by pollution must be centered in crafting and benefiting from the alternatives
  • The Green Economic Industrial Corridor plan for the Calumet River IC released by the Southeast Environmental Task Force
  • Casa Pueblo, a sustainable community self-management project in Puerto Rico

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was launched in 2010 to accelerate efforts to protect and restore the largest system of fresh surface water in the world — the Great Lakes. By remediating areas of concern afflicted by pollution, runoff and seepage, we are able to restore the natural ecosystems on which we depend.

However, funding for the initiative is under threat and requires that we, as a region defend it. Through political action, contacting your representatives and spreading the word, we can guarantee the funding that the Great Lakes need and deserve.

Tell D.C. lawmakers to protect the Great Lakes. Call your lawmakers and tell them to make Great Lakes protection a priority. You can contact your Member of Congress via the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121.

Most farming currently takes the form of industrial agriculture which looks to eke the highest yield and profits out of the lowest investment.  This occurs largely through the application of fossil fuel based fertilizer.

Insist that the farms whose runoff flows to your water use cover crops, new techniques for applying phosphorus and rotating crop mixes. In particular, encourage farmers around you to be certified as responsible stewards by programs like the 4-R Nutrient Stewardship Certification in Ohio or the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), which are designed to certify farmers for using practices that protect water quality and environmental quality.

When it comes to animal agriculture, we are seeing the rise of Combined Area Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where meat and dairy products are produced by concentrating the highest number of animals in the smallest area.  In order to keep yields high, these animals are often pumped with antibiotics and steroids.  Furthermore, untreated animal urine and feces run into rivers and lakes, contaminating drinking water.

Consider adopting a plant-based or vegetarian diet or reducing the amount of animal products that you consume.

You can also advocate to keep CAFOs out of your watershed.

99 distinct environmental laws have been reversed.  More may follow during Trump’s final two months in office.

We must remember that the environment is not something separate from us, but rather the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil that sustains us.  To attack the environment is to attack people, plants and animals, not to mention the very premise of a future.

Not only must the U.S. EPA be restored as an agency that protects the environment, but regional, state and local governments must create safeguards so that checks are in place should the federal agency again be mismanaged to the point of contradicting its very purpose.

When it comes to water, our country faces a crisis.  It is a nation-wide crisis that the regions of our country experience differently: Great Lakes and Mississippi River basin towns are regularly flooded by rainstorms that overwhelm infrastructure and pour into homes and businesses; the West faces a debilitating drought; in the heartland, American agriculture braces for the collapse of the aquifers that support it.

We cannot sit by idly and watch our country ruined by too much water in some places and not enough in others.  Instead, we can balance the equation by building industrial-scale plants in flood-prone regions that recycle the water we currently treat as waste.  The technology exists and can be advanced in the United States.

Currently we treat rain like waste, flushing it into bulging pipes and swollen rivers.  With nowhere to go, water backs up causing costly flooding and FEMA claims. We can direct this water to plants, treat it to drinking-water standards, then supply it to American farms, factories and data cooling centers in the regions that need it most.  We can join flooded cities and struggling farms together in a common solution.  We can create tens of thousands of jobs not only in building the plants and the supply pipes, but also in clean industry.  Recycling water can further generate clean energy and make minerals available that can be turned into usable products.