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Chicago water history

In 1900 the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River and connected it to the Mississippi River via the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Water that once flowed into and replenished Lake Michigan now leaves the Great Lakes Watershed and flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Chicago’s water present

Lake Michigan is Chicago’s water supply. When you turn on the faucet, that water is coming directly from the lake. After use, it enters Chicago’s sewer system before being treated, then discarded, down the Mississippi.

Chicago’s sewer is a “combined sewer system”—meaning storm-water runoff mixes freely with sewage. It is then treated and put into what Chicago uses as an open sewer: the Chicago River. As a result, 70% of the river is treated effluent—and because Chicago doesn’t disinfect it’s waste water—the river is so contaminated with bacteria that contact with the water will make you ill.

Often during heavy rains, Chicago’s sewer will become overwhelmed and overflow, sending raw sewage directly into the river and Lake Michigan.

Every day Chicago alone diverts 2 billion gallons of water from the Great Lakes Watershed. Less than 1% of that is returned to the lake. Five million gallons of rain falls on Chicago per year, and less than 1% of that is returned to the lake. Our seemingly endless supply of water, however, is not without limits.

Chicago’s water future

Our demand for water is growing, but our supply is not. The Great Lakes Compact reinforced limits on the amount of water Illinois can withdraw from Lake Michigan.

Despite being located on one of the richest sources of fresh water, even parts of the Northeastern Illinois region are likely to experience water shortages by 2025.

By reducing our water waste now—and by returning the water we withdraw from Lake Michigan—we can help avoid this impending water crisis.

Great Lakes Facts

1% of Earth’s water is drinkable
20% of that water is in the Great Lakes
95% of North America’s water supply is in the Great Lakes

Spread evenly across the continental U.S., the Great Lakes would submerge the country under about 9.5 feet of water.

The Great Lakes shoreline is equal to almost 44 percent of the circumference of the Earth.

Lake Michigan is the third largest Great Lake by surface area and the sixth largest freshwater lake in the world.

The deepest point in the lake is 925 feet (282 meters)—the height of the Chrystler building in NY.

Water you doing 8/28?

Join the Call to Action, a Moving Design Initiative on Water, as we signal a change in relationship with our epic and irreplaceable resource, Lake Michigan.

Walk with us in a parade from the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue to Oak Street Beach. Come for the facts(!), stay for the music, ice installations, slip 'n' slide, 50 gallon man, giant sand castle messages, fun and more!

See you on August 28!
12pm Water Tower on Michigan Ave
Parade to Oak Street Beach

Help spread the word by downloading and posting "Water you doing 8/28?" posters.

Invite friends to the Facebook Event!