Metropolitan Chicago can have a robust economy long into the 21st century because of its freshwater assets and its transit infrastructure, should we invest in them. As urban sprawl imperils freshwater supplies elsewhere and climate change threatens coastal inundations that would push more Americans to the continent's interior, we can position this region for water-intensive industries and sustainable growth.
The Great Lakes hold nearly 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. What an extraordinary, if still limited, resource. Yet Chicago alone pumps nearly a billion gallons of water from Lake Michigan daily, uses it once for residential, industrial and commercial purposes, then sends it to sewage treatment plants and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.
This is neither sustainable nor smart. Moving forward, we should:
1) Create an enterprise zone surrounding the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's Calumet treatment plant on 130th Street and Torrence Avenue where industries could buy wastewater cheaper than potable water. The Calumet plant treats some 300 million gallons of wastewater daily, reusing virtually none. Disinfection facilities will increase the quality of treated water by 2015. This model could support enterprise zones near the MWRD's five other plants, which collectively discharge well over a billion gallons of water daily. That's a valuable resource we can capture.
2) Establish a consortium similar to the Milwaukee Water Council to connect the academic institutions, utilities, water-related industries, economic development hubs and tech innovators to capitalize on Chicago's water resources. An experimental "skunkworks" think tank could shape a development plan for reuse of treated water in water-intensive applications — boutique textile operations, data center cooling, food processing, chemical manufacture or urban agriculture with year-round hydroponics.
3) Make Cook County a center of manufacturing for rainwater harvesting and green infrastructure. Chicago already has more green roofs than any other city in America. They capture rainwater, reduce urban heat, provide habitat for beneficial insects and pollinating bees, and cut heating and cooling costs. Yet many communities suffer flooding that may intensify with heavier rainstorms, harbingers of climate change. Given that we live in a soggy, low-lying region, managing stormwater is especially vexing. Cook County could become a hub for research, development, and manufacture of systems to capture stormwater and conserve freshwater — including installation of green roofs and bioswales, landscape elements designed to remove contaminants from runoff water. Already a Chicago-area company, Ozinga, has developed types of permeable concrete that reduce rainwater runoff.
4) If separating the Lake Michigan watershed from the Mississippi River watershed is the best way to block invasive species, the Chicago region can reimagine freight transit and water management. Such a project would be a massive stimulus for Chicago's rail and freight system — and for job creation.
5) Reimagining our environment shouldn't occur only at the water's edge. We should scrap plans to build an airport near Peotone and instead invest in mass transit, rail-to-freight hubs and high-speed rail. Land acquired for the airport should become a research and training hub for sustainable agriculture in concert with community colleges. (The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz is but one example.) Is it not madness to pave arable land near a city for an airport that hasn't shown itself to be economically warranted and that will degrade the environment? Where's the money? Illinois has significant presence on Agriculture and Transportation committees in Congress.
6) Many of our protected natural lands are overrun by invasive plant species and otherwise degraded. Restoring nature also restores us — our bodies and our spirits. The 68,000 acres held by the Cook County Forest Preserve District offer endless opportunities to involve thousands of citizens in habitat restoration targeting youths, the elderly and the unemployed. Restored areas do a better job of sequestering stormwater, capturing carbon and providing habitat for scores of beneficial creatures and enhancing quality of life.
No plan for Chicago should consider economic vitality alone, for what do we have if we do not also engage our minds and our spirits and deepen our connection as humans in community with the natural world?
Chicago is the largest American city whose name links it to the native landscape — Checagou being the Native American name for the nodding wild onion that grew in profusion along the riverbanks and that grows here still. Maximizing the use of our water and restoring our natural areas would reconnect us to our origin — to Checagou. Let's get to it!
Chicago conservationist Debra Shore is a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.