Imagine a Day Without Water: Lake Michigan and water shortages in northern Illinois

Chicago borders one of the world’s greatest sources of freshwater – Lake Michigan. Its unique geography and the assurance of a constant supply of this essential resource has spurred the region’s population growth and economic development, cemented its position as a transportation hub and helped create today’s dynamic metropolis.

When I first moved to Chicago, I couldn’t believe that I was looking at a lake and not the open ocean. So, I was dumbstruck when I heard that, just a few miles outside Chicago, communities were facing risks of water shortages. Towns such as Joliet and Elgin depend on rapidly depleting groundwater resources for all their freshwater needs. These groundwater-dependent municipalities are struggling to find alternatives and secure water supplies for their residents and businesses, and time is running out.

These communities face a harsh irony: Freshwater resources are abundant and near, but they generally are out of reach for those outside the Great Lakes basin as agreed upon in the Great Lakes Basin Compact in 2008. However, in 1900, the reversal of the Chicago River was completed to prevent waterborne diseases from sewage contamination in Lake Michigan. This reversal causes water to flow inland from Lake Michigan toward the Mississippi and has led to a cap on how much water Greater Chicago may take from the lake. Indeed, it took a Supreme Court decree to allow the State of Illinois to divert 3,200 cubic feet per second (cfs) of Lake Michigan water. Recent available data on the Lake Michigan diversion shows that only 70% of the diversion has been allocated to users. In addition, not all the water that has been allocated is actually being used. In part, this is because of laudable efforts to increase water use efficiency and save water. Some of this water can be efficiently allocated and transported to the nearby communities and, if done efficiently, can save substantial financial resources for all involved, and generate significant revenues for the water suppliers, such as the City of Chicago.

It is essential that we continue to collaborate to protect the Great Lakes and adhere to the governing principles of the Great Lakes Basin Compact and the Illinois water allocation. A solution for these communities would almost certainly involve Lake Michigan water, and we must ensure this is done in a manner that optimizes and balances environmental, social, and economic factors. We propose a path forward based on two inter-connected approaches:

  1. Regional collaboration: The Chicago metropolitan area is the most splintered in the United States. There are more than 400 community water supply systems in the region, operating independently. This leads to higher costs, gaps in oversight, uncertainty for the region’s water purchasers, and many other issues. Cooperation across and within municipal and county lines can help facilitate a more sustainable and comprehensive approach to water management. Regionalization can lead to economies of scale, cost savings from minimizing redundant services and infrastructure, facilitate access to water resources, and more. This is recognized by the region’s key planning actors, such as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Metropolitan Planning Council, which support efforts toward greater water supply coordination. Such a shift is also happening in other countries. In Brazil, metropolitan regions must develop integrated planning around issues of common interest, including on water supply, which harmonizes municipal plans, reduces costs and facilitates shared benefits.

Lake Itupararanga, Brazil

  1. A One Water framework: This means managing all water in an integrated, inclusive, and sustainable manner across scales. One Water also means tackling problems based on the complete life cycle of water and larger infrastructure systems—rather than just one piece of the equation. This means thinking about water supply, sewage, stormwater and flooding all together in order to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover water, including stormwater and wastewater. The city-state of Singapore, which has no groundwater resources and limited available surface water, has used this integrated water management approach with great success: 60% of its water supply comes from recycling wastewater and collecting rainwater. Closer to home, in Orange County, California, 100 million gallons a day of wastewater are converted into high purity drinking water. That same volume of water no longer needs to be imported from the Colorado River or northern California.

There are solutions to benefit all, including our ecosystems. It will require applying knowledge gained from the world over and working together across our local jurisdictional boundaries.

Please contact Francine van den Brandeler at

Posted in water.