A novel plan to recycle Chicago’s wastewater could prevent a future water crisis

The Chicago River, May 2023. (Photo: Jenny Fontaine/University of Illinois Chicago)

The massive Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer, which supplies groundwater to communities in Will, Kane and DuPage counties, is collapsing. Joliet alone has drawn down its portion of the aquifer by 800 feet. In order to avoid an eventual water shortage, Joliet has contracted with the City of Chicago to supply freshwater from Lake Michigan by 2030.

While this contract provides a fix for Joliet’s near-term problems, it is not broadly sustainable, according to an interdisciplinary group of researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago. Eventually, more communities on the collapsing aquifer will reach out to Chicago for water, and at some point, due to legal limits set by the U.S. Supreme Court, Chicago will need to start saying no.

“Many more communities are going to need water from Chicago, but Illinois has a cap,” explained Rachel Havrelock, founder of UIC’s Freshwater Lab, a humanities-based initiative focused on research, teaching and public awareness about the Great Lakes. “This needs to be thought about now. You don’t want to get to the point where, ‘Oh my gosh, this community has no water.’”

The Freshwater Lab, in partnership with UIC’s Great Cities Institute, has a proposed solution: Supply industrial sites with treated wastewater, while reserving drinking water for the taps that really need it — those running into homes, health care facilities and other places that require potable water. This will help meet the area’s drinking water needs, will divert wastewater out of our rivers and will help support industrial economic growth in northern Illinois.

The researchers lay out their idea in their recently released report, From Waste to Water: A Framework for Sustainable Freshwater Supply in Northeastern Illinois. They propose a novel “dual-pipeline” system: one for conveying treated wastewater to industrial sites and one for conveying drinking water everywhere else. Instead of trying to retrofit existing pipelines, they propose that every new community that applies to build a pipeline to draw water from Lake Michigan build a second one for recycled wastewater.

They’re hoping that federal and state funding can be secured so that the dual-pipeline system is integrated into the Joliet project, which is just beginning construction.

“When better than now to start?” said Teresa Córdova, director of the Great Cities Institute. “There’s no reason we should be using drinking water for industrial use when we have a viable alternative.”

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