Global Climate action and sustainable development, Health and social care, Transport and infrastructure

From snow that only melted yesterday: water management in Chicago


Photo by Benjamin R. on Unsplash


Taking its name from the Algonquin word ‘Shikaaka’ (meaning onion), Chicago covers an area of lakes, rivers and streams that was once (and in some parts still is) full of wild onion and garlic. Lake Michigan is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world and was of huge importance to Native Americans and European settlers. While the lake remains a key supplier of drinking water and food to millions of people in the region, it suffers from extensive pollution by heavy industry.

Recently snowfall in Chicago has decreased, instead turning to rain as the Midwest warms. In winter, the heavy rainfall  increases the likelihood of riverbank erosion and runoff for sediments and flooding. In summer, warming waters decrease water quality, allowing algae blooms and damage to fish habitats.

Inspired by a recent trip to the Windy City, this blog will explore the importance of local waterways to Chicago’s development, the ongoing challenge of water pollution, and some of the projects developed by local authorities to improve water management in and around the city.


The metropolis of modern-day Chicago has been built on the force and quality of its waterways, which were vital for transport, industry and life. However, as the city’s population grew, so did pressure on the waterways. The population explosion in Chicago meant that unprecedented and unimaginable pressure was placed upon the city with little or none of the waste and water infrastructure we have now. As Chicago became a “Porkopolis” (over 3 million livestock were slaughtered every year), pollution of the waterways grew. All human and industrial effluents made their way to the lake, and the lake water was sucked back into the city. This toxic mix of effluents caused a health disaster and nearly 60% of infants died before their 5th birthday and life expectancy was 37 years.

The City has been the subject of pioneering engineering projects that have attempted to tackle the challenge of pollution. The Chicago River is a 156 mile system of rivers and canals. In 1887, in a civil engineering feat, the Illinois government reversed the flow of the river by taking water from Lake Michigan and discharging into the Mississippi River. Completed in 1900, this attempt to clean the river caused problems and exported much of the pollution to a new place. Sound familiar? Some suggest this was the start of all the political infighting and blame games that gave rise to the name Windy City – not meteorological, but referring to hot air from arguing whose fault it was.

Staying with politics briefly and reflecting on the City’s turbulent political landscape, LGIU’s Hannah Muirhead (who lived in Chicago in 2014-15 when local elections were taking place) writes: “ I couldn’t quite place the vibes I was getting from the elections process. Turns out the number of movies I’d seen over the years where the primary antagonist is trying to get a Chicago alderman onside to further his nefarious agenda, or trying to intimidate an entire ward to vote for the candidate he wants in power was making me feel like I was what was going on around me was all part of some Hollywood corruption storyline. Although in the real world over 30 aldermen in Chicago have been tied to corruption cases since the 1970s, little did I realise that a perception of an entire city’s local government system based on fictional accounts would be inaccurate at best. And indeed, local government in Chicago is much more than its reputation for corruption and its famously gerrymandered wards (read LGIU’s blog for more).

This historical and personal look at Chicago demonstrates clearly how cities, and their residents, depend on water to survive and local government is key to protecting that legacy. While Chicago continues to depend on the very same waterways, the City continues to battle the physical and political consequences of its violent and polluting birth.

Fast forward to 2022:

Today local government and communities along the Chicago river waterways and Lake Michigan are fighting to improve water quality and bring back to life precious wetland and urban habitats that support resilient and healthy communities. It is fascinating to understand how some of what happened decades ago affect the city today. For example, pollutants including heavy metals and phosphorus, do not simply wash away, but remain in the river bed and are regularly churned up by storms, flooding and building works. Naturally, pollution is not the only impact: the Midwest supplies 65% of the US corn and soybeans and both short and long-term climate change impacts will detrimentally affect crop and agriculture production.

While pollution has been a historical problem in Chicago, city forefathers showed amazing foresight and protected miles of walkways by the river that have helped to create important routes for pedestrians and cyclists. Today, the city is increasingly focused on more sustainable environmental management. The projects mentioned below are just a few examples of how the City and the surrounding areas are overcoming some of the big environmental challenges of the past, and the list of 2021 accomplishments published by the mayor’s office is extensive and wide-ranging, with an impressive focus on sustainability.

Water Management

The district of Chicago embarked on a major water reclamation project and created Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) which is tasked with delivering a number of projects for the city.

MWRD is an agency that strives to protect businesses, homes and neighbourhoods from flood damage, provide clean wastewater and manage water as a vital resource for the area. MWRD are also developing innovative ways to recover and reuse resources, such as energy, biosolids, water, algae, phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients removed from the wastewater stream. Read MWRD Agency Brochure for more detailed information.

MWRD Projects include:

“Buffalo Creek Reservoir Lake County Forest Preserves (LCFPD) north of Chicago near Buffalo Grove, Illinois, has a fresh, new look and feel as part of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s (MWRD) work to increase the reservoir’s capacity by nearly 60 million gallons. Also improved is the reservoir’s setting. Now teeming with natural prairie and wetland plants to absorb more water, it has more capacity to protect neighbouring communities from flooding.”

“Arrowhead Lake Flood Control project increased floodwater storage in Arrowhead Lake, 7016 W. 135th St., in the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) was created by replacing an existing dam and raising an existing bicycle trail on the north and east sides of the lake in unincorporated Cook County near Palos Heights. In addition to removing structures from the 100-year floodplain, this collaborative effort between the MWRD, FPCC, City of Palos Heights and Cal-Sag Watershed Planning Council worked to restore and improve forest preserve amenities at Arrowhead Lake.”

Stormwater Management Program’s Cook County developed ways to build resilient communities with the right regulations and capital improvement projects that reduce the potential for stormwater damage to life, public health, safety, property and the environment. Storm water management in Cook County had historically been a patchwork of efforts by local, regional, state and federal agencies. In 2004, Illinois General Assembly enacted Public Act 93-1049, allowing for the creation of a comprehensive storm water management programme that provides a framework for storm water management program. MWRD established Watershed Planning Councils and completed Detailed Watershed Plans for all six major watersheds in Cook County; initiated a Storm water Management Capital Improvement Program; i a Small Streams Maintenance Program; and adopted and implemented the Watershed Management Ordinance (WMO). “

There are also many other organisations and community groups working towards water management goals. One example is Alliance for the Great Lakes, highlighting that as lakes and rivers do not stop and start within municipal boundaries it’s important to find ways to connect and empower people and organisations from USA and Canada to protect the lakes.

The Alliance works on:

  • Advocacy & Leadership: partnering communities and decision makers to develop actionable solutions that protect the lakes and communities.
  • Education & Action:  empowering people and communities to protect the lakes by providing action-oriented information and programs.
  • Research & Analysis:  informing community leaders and guide policy to protect the Lakes.


It is instructive to look back at where urban planning and regeneration has been, to learn lessons from the past in order to move forward. Chicago, like many other big cities is going through the turmoil of deindustrialisation and faces the pressures of climate change. It is vitally important that, in planning new urban environments, planners and local government around the world understands the connectivity and importance of water management. From the effects of heat islands, water management, sustainable urban drainage to flooding risk and water shortages politicians’ decisions affect people today and in the future. It is a bit of a cliché but water really is life. As Patrick Geddes said of this green and blue world “a city is more than a place in space it is a drama in time”.

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