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In Evanston, it is easy to take access to water for granted. Water is ubiquitous. The lake has been at or above record high levels in recent years, and the City has a new border of black sandbags along the lakefront to protect the shoreline from flooding and further erosion.
Where communities near the Great Lakes have an embarrassment of riches, many in the world do without. Three billion people worldwide still lack basic handwashing facilities at home, but since 1874, Evanstonians have had access to clean, fresh water for drinking, cooking, and bathing at the turn of a tap. As a result, Evanstonians may not even realize that March 22 is World Water Day or that the theme for 2021 is valuing water. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 6 aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.
By the early 20th century, families were moving to Evanston because the establishment of the water treatment plant led to a decline in typhoid fever, cholera, and dysentery. Today, Evanston provides clean water for over 400,000 people. In addition to the residents of Evanston, the City sells water to Skokie, Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Des Plaines, Lincolnwood, Palatine, Wheeling, and the Morton Grove Niles Water Commission.
An agreement between the eight states that border the Great Lakes controls the allocation of water to the communities surrounding the Great Lakes Basin. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with the Army Corps of Engineers, determines how much water Evanston and other communities can take out of the lake each day.
About 50 people work in the Pumping, Water Treatment, Water Quality, and Water Distribution divisions headquartered at the Water Treatment Plant at the end of Lincoln Street on the lake. Darrell King, the Bureau Chief for Water Production, briefly described how the water gets from the lake to the tap.
“The Pumping Division is responsible for bringing water in, sending it over to the water treatment side and then, once it’s treated, pumping it out to schools, homes,” and elsewhere in the community, Mr. King said.
“Evanston has two tanks, called standpipes; one on Grosse Pointe Road and one on Hartrey Avenue.” Together, they hold 12.5 million gallons of water. “When most people are asleep, or when demand is down, we fill those standpipes and then, during times of higher demand, we use the water. The water never just sits there. It’s constantly going in and out. It can add volume to the area where it’s located. It can provide pressure to that area. And it can also protect against pressure surges. It can actually absorb pressure and protect water mains,” Mr. King said.
Mr. King said, “Most people want to know, ‘Is my drinking water safe?’ Absolutely. Yes.” He continued, “We have a wonderful staff here that care. What we do here is important to us. We put forth a lot of effort to make sure that not only the water is high quality and safe to drink and use, but we keep on top of maintenance and replacement. Our goal is that it never breaks. A lot of effort goes into that. We have a really good team of professionals that stays on top of it.”
The Water Department has two paid apprenticeship programs for high school graduates that can lead to employment with the City or other municipalities. The Water Worker 1 program takes four apprentices who rotate between all four divisions in six-month increments. They learn the basics of pumping, filtration, distribution, and sewer.
The Water Plant Operator program is more technical. Two apprentices spend six months each in pumping and filter and learn how to control or operate the plant to treat the water and pump it. They also go to school for a Water Plant Operator license because, Mr. King explained, “They’re driving the ship.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been reminded to wash their hands. In Evanston, thanks to abundant safe, clean water, that is easy to do. So, in honor of World Water Day 2021, community members can turn on the tap, fill a glass, and drink a toast to Evanston’s Water Treatment Plant.
“I don’t think I will ever move away from Lake Michigan,” concluded Mr. King.