To break our complacency on water, we need a broader vision and a sense of urgency - Metropolitan Planning Council

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To break our complacency on water, we need a broader vision and a sense of urgency

Chicago needs a comprehensive water strategy to protect kids, prevent flood damage, and end inequities in access and affordability

Image courtesy Stephen J. Serio via Crain's Chicago Business

This article first appeared in Crain's Chicago Business on September 26, 2019

Chicago is rich in water—that's no secret. Lake Michigan is one of the world's largest sources of freshwater. Yet our water problems abound: flooding, lead pipes and excessively expensive water bills. They're the new normal. Solutions seem slow to come and far away.

Abundance breeds complacency. The vastness of Lake Michigan not only encourages lazy days spent on the beach, but also numbs us to the urgency at hand.

Complacency is ingrained in the bones of our infrastructure, governance and decisions. Peers like Milwaukee and Toronto consume their lake water, clean it, return it and then do it again. Innovative water management is imperative. Stewardship is an existential necessity. Meanwhile, since we reversed our river, we've sent our effluent and most of our urgency downstream.

"Complacency is ingrained in the bones of our infrastructure, governance and decisions."

Places like Las Vegas and Phoenix don't have much water at all, and have implemented elaborate conservation programs to survive and thrive. We lack the same conservation imperative—it's not unusual for Chicago-area communities to lose track of 20, 30 and even 50 percent of water due to leaky pipes. It just drips away.

It would be one thing if the only consequences of our complacency were wastefulness, a missed opportunity for leadership in the climate change era, or a failure to fully seize on the promise our water holds for economic growth.

But urgency calls throughout the Chicago area. Our water complacency is putting kids at risk from lead exposure in hundreds of thousands of homes. Chronic flooding is draining wealth from our most vulnerable communities. Escalating water rates are exacerbating the forces of inequity since they're often set without any real consideration for ability to pay.

A big lake won't solve those problems. Investment and equitable policies will, but they must be informed by values above and beyond stewardship and conservation—and we'll also need a plan.

Step one is developing a vision for Chicago's water future, but that needs to be reinforced by a new charge and mission for the city's Department of Water Management, one that goes well beyond selling as much water as possible.

Yet planning for water in isolation would be shortsighted. A new vision for Chicago's water future must be integrated into a citywide comprehensive plan, policies and projects across departments, budgeting, staffing, policy reform and our economic development strategy.

This new vision must also inform partnerships within our local river systems, suburban water relationships and the Great Lakes region.

"Our water complacency is putting kids at risk from lead exposure in hundreds of thousands of homes. Chronic flooding is draining wealth from our most vulnerable communities."

Integrating water decisions into all aspects of governance is fairly normal in places where urgency compels action, where necessity demands invention. It hasn't been our normal since we reversed the river more than a century ago, and since then the lake has dulled our senses.

But imperative has come for Chicago again. City Hall is rightly acting on the urgency of citywide equity, health and well-being; it's past time those values informed our water resources management as well.

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