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
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."
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.