In front of a map of Lake Michigan, MWRD Commissioner Debra Shore and USEPA adviser Cameron Davis discuss stewardship of the Great Lakes.                              Photo by Mary Mumbrue

Stewardship, vigilance and progress were the significant messages from a panel convened by Rotary International last week to discuss the water of the Great Lakes in the context of local usage and the global shortage of fresh water. The Great Lakes system is the largest source of fresh water in the world.

John Hewko, general secretary of Rotary International, presented the global picture: 750 million people lack access to improved drinking water; 2.5 billion lack access to good sanitation. In this country, he added, “Two million Americans lack access to basic water and sanitation services.”

Lake Michigan is the largest public drinking water supply in Illinois, serving nearly 6.6 million people who use close to 1 billion gallons of water – about 150 gallons per capita each day. So close is “this bounty in our back yard that we take water for granted,” said Cameron Davis, senior advisor to the Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Taking From the Lake

Debra Shore, local commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago MWRD), said Chicago’s city fathers realized quite early that a thriving metropolis depended on safe drinking water and reversed the course of the Chicago River so it would flow out of rather than into Lake Michigan, thus changing the watershed. This means, said Ms. Shore, that rainwater runoff does not replenish Lake Michigan; rather, “We send our rainwater, etc., downstream.”

About 42% of the land in Cook County is now impervious surface, Ms. Shore said, and “because of this, about 50,000 gallons of water are displaced [that is, not returned to the lake] each year.”

She said strong “rain events,” in which rain falls intensely and quickly, overwhelming sewers, present greater challenges to stewardship of the lake.

 Polluting the Great Lakes

When the Chicago River still flowed into Lake Michigan, “People dumped all manner of human and animal and industrial waste” into it, said Ms. Shore.  There is little current in the southern part of Lake Michigan, she said, so “whatever is dumped into the southern end of the lake stays there.”

Mr. Davis, who heads the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, said, “Because the Great Lakes seem so vast, we think we come from a lifestyle of throwing into them things that we think we don’t need any more. They have been viewed as much as a conduit for waste as a source of life. … Over the past century and a half, we’ve used the Great Lakes as a place for fishing and recreation, a way to drive economic development and a source of food and energy.”

Each of these uses of the Great Lakes has presented a challenge, Mr. Davis said, but the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has seen some success.

Among the challenges are the “hotspots” of algobloom – areas where growth of algae could overwhelm or has overwhelmed the water, causing it to stagnate or worse – seen now in Green Bay, Wis., and Saginaw, Mich.

The most dramatic of these has been in Lake Erie, where, because of the algobloom, water in the City of Toledo, Ohio, was declared unsafe for drinking or bathing for a few days last summer.

Although there may be several causes of algobloom, many experts say agricultural runoff is a leading cause. Toxic runoff can come from fertilizer, where phosphates are not entirely absorbed into the soil, or from large livestock-feeding complexes, from urban runoff or sewage-system overruns, said panel members.

Also on the panel was Andy Stuart, who is president of the Rotary Club of Toledo. He said his club is planning a fall conference for governors and legislators of states within the Lake Erie watershed to “try to get on track to solve this problem. How can we live like this?”

Mr. Davis said he believes there is hope. Waukegan Harbor is the clean-up side corollary. Once considered the “world’s worst PCB mess, it is now cleaned up after 40 years,” he said.

Other challenges to the Great Lakes are invasive species, such as zebra and quagga mussels, which are present here, and Asian carp and northern snakehead, which so far have been kept out.

Hopeful Measures

Ian Hughes, who leads sustainability efforts at Goose Island Brewing Company, said it takes seven gallons of water to make a gallon of beer. Brewers throughout the world take advantage of the local water to craft their beers, he said. “Water is a blank canvas upon which brewers paint their masterpieces,” he said, giving as examples the hard water in England giving rise to India pale ales (IPAs) and the Czech pilsners that “let the malt shine.”

At Goose Island, Mr. Hughes has found ways to reduce water usage by steam-cleaning used barrels rather than soaking them. The company now composts the pits and peels of fruit used to flavor some of their beers. The spent yeast is collected and sold to an energy company in Indiana, which culls ethanol from it.

“We’re thinking ‘downstream,’” Mr. Hughes said. People listen to his ideas, he said, because “I have a superpower. A beer helps people listen; it is the universal social lubricant.”

Holding up a vial of white crystals, Ms. Shore said, “MWRD is going to implement a process to remove phosphorus from water and inject the crystals into soil as fertilizer. The plants will absorb the phosphorus when they need it and there will be no runoff – turning a vicious circle into a virtuous circle.”

Mr. Davis said the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, implemented several years ago, would make it “very difficult to get water out of the Great Lakes,” so he said he believes the Great Lakes water is protected for Great Lakes states.

“These are our HOMES,” Mr. Davis said – “Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior… The Great Lakes are a magical, magical place that we all care about,” said Mr. Davis.

 “The Great Lakes Compact is a political document and can be changed. We need to be ever vigilant,” said Ms. Shore. Like Mr. Davis, she stressed the importance of stewardship.

“We need to bust the notion of infinitude. Water is renewable but finite…. We have a moral obligation to make good use of this precious resource.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...