Sustainability and Water Conservation in Chicago

By Eviata Ivy for SUST 210*

Water shortages across the United States are becoming more and more prevalent these days.  Even cities and towns that lie near water sources that seemed like they would never run out are experiencing water supply pressures. One such city is Chicago.

Lake Michigan looks like an endless supply of fresh water, but it is not.  Recent years have shown the water levels decreasing, and many experts believe it is from overuse and from waste, and the majority of the waste and overuse is done by Chicago.  Because of this, Chicago was sued back in 1967 and lost the case.  The government put into place water restrictions not only for Illinois but all the states that border the Great Lakes.  These limitations have cost the city and state millions of dollars over the years in fines resulting from overuse.

As a result, the city and state have made the decision to invest in ways that would conserve water instead of just paying for overages.  The city has established a website to assist residents, and business owners are becoming more sustainable.  One of the initiatives that’s been pushed by environmentalists is the recycling of waste water, such as stormwater runoff, something that has recently been in the news about Los Angeles, one of the United States’ most water-scarce (and thirstiest) cities.

The use of recycled runoff water is very controversial because of the processes used to clean the water.  Because pollution from other countries travels to the United States, there is no telling what types of pollutants are in stormwater runoff.  For this reason it is very difficult to purify the water sufficiently for consumption, but it can be purified enough for all other non-consumption purposes.

Chicago’s Wastewater initiative was established to get residents and businesses involved in the process of conserving water.  This program has two major goals.  The first major goal is to encourage water conservation by giving city residents and businesses the opportunity to receive free water meters for their homes and or business. They also can receive 50% discounts off the purchase of trees, native plants, compost bins and rain barrels.

This initiative will provide education for residents and businesses on green design (learning about design and planning concepts used to reduce storm water runoff including rain gardens, green roofs, drainage swales, and permeable paving); downspout disconnection (how to disconnect your downspout to reduce the frequency of basement flooding and combined sewer overflows); rain barrels (using the water collected in a rain barrel for watering your garden and lawn, washing your car or bike, cleaning work boots and tools and watering potted plants); and water conservation and water treatment systems.

The second goal is to preserve the lakefront and to restore the Chicago River, so that it can be the city’s “second shoreline” for recreation and the lake will be for clean drinking water and beaches.  Restoring the river will benefit the city and the surrounding suburbs by lowering the cost paid for Lake Michigan water and enhancing both the lake and river as environmental, economic, and cultural resources.

Chicago has set ambitious goals for water conservation as part of its Sustainable 2015 plan.  By 2015 it expects to decrease water usage by 2% or 1.4 million gallons per day, annually; create a more enhanced stormwater management system to reduce overflowing and basement flooding; and restore the riverfront as well as preserve and further restore the lakefront. At this point of time, a good majority of these goals have been accomplished and the city is on track to accomplish 100% of their water-related goals.  If the third largest city in the United States can make changes to be more sustainable, so can the rest of the world.

Submitted 29 Mar 2013

* Each week during the Spring 2013 semester, two to three students in the SUST 210 Sustainable Future online/Schaumburg class at Roosevelt University will contribute blog posts to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

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About Suburban Sustainability

Founder and editor of the Schaumburg's Sustainability Future social media project (est. Earth Day, 2011)
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