Evanston residents are all too familiar with recent flash flood warnings, which left some with flooded basements and leaking ceilings. Other residents are uncertain about where to seek help in the event of a flood, according to a recent survey by We are Water, a project that explores the relationship Evanstonians have with water.

The We are Water project, led by Vidya Venkataramanan, a post-doctoral researcher at Northwestern University, and local water activist Clare Tallon Ruen, hopes to eventually use information collected in surveys and interviews to put together a series of action items that can help the City address issues like flooding. 

In anticipation of the increased effects of climate change, the City is carrying out a study that examines where future floods could occur, said Ms. Ruen. By comparing this information with that collected in their own survey, the We are Water team wants to evaluate whether those worried about flooding are also the ones most vulnerable. 

Sent out at the beginning of the pandemic, the survey asked residents if they believe Lake Michigan is accessible, how much they value the lake, if they worry about having their water shut off, and how much they trust Evanston tap water. In addition to the survey, the We are Water team conducted live interviews with residents covering the same topics. 

“We want the findings from our work to be useful and link up to actual priorities,” said Dr. Venkataramanan. One of We are Water’s projects is to increase accessibility to the lakefront and eliminate beach tokens, she said. Using the findings from the research, the team is putting together a write-up that could be used with other efforts to provide residents with universal beach access. 

We are Water is also looking into the relationship between homeless residents and water, including whether they experience water insecurity and how connected they feel to the lake, said Dr. Venkataramanan. 

In another initiative, the survey asked residents about their perception of the safety of Evanston’s drinking water. Dr. Venkataramanan said that according to the survey, the majority of residents filter their tap water, which is interesting because the City sits next to one of the largest freshwater sources in the world and has an excellent treatment plan. 

“There’s a lot of trust in the water, yet there is this level of uncertainty,” said Dr. Venkataramanan.

We are Water wants to help communicate this uncertainty to the City and make residents know they don’t need to be spending money on bottled water, said Dr. Venkataramanan.

Ms. Ruen is working to increase community engagement and make residents more aware of their proximity to Lake Michigan. She called her work a “parallel process” to the research that Dr. Venkataramanan is leading. Part of the community engagement involves art projects, organized by Ms. Ruen at local markets and other community gatherings. At these outreach events, she asks residents to create a piece of art that answers the following questions: what does it mean to you to live in a city that’s next to Lake Michigan? 

Ms. Ruen said she hopes the We are Water project will help people realize the value of the lake. “One of our secret goals is to not just find out what people feel about the lake, but to heighten people’s awareness of how great it is to live here,” she said. 

We are Water Evanston will have art outreach events at Evanston Made’s upcoming Maker’s Markets on Aug. 6 and Sept, 4. Residents can also attend a free public visual art workshop at the Robert Crown Reading Garden on July 14 from 6 to 8 pm.

Because the City of Evanston’s Climate Action Resilience Plan (CARP) does not highlight water justice issues, Ms. Ruen said We are Water is trying to raise awareness for these concerns. The accessibility of natural spaces is considered an environmental justice issue, so beach tokens – which limit accessibility – should be addressed in the CARP, she said. Until a new plan is written that addresses water justice issues, We are Water is working to fill that gap. 

In January, several Northwestern students became involved with the We are Water project. Dr. Venkataramanan said the students, who are learning how to analyze data quantitatively and qualitatively, are becoming more connected with Evanston in the process. She said the students are also working to disseminate the results of the research in creative and impactful ways. 

Northwestern undergraduates Anika Mittu and Erin McCotter are sifting through the interviews and surveys to identify patterns. They are working on a paper and brainstorming ways to publicize the information. 

Colleen O’Brien, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern in Environmental Engineering, studies how urban green spaces can reduce flooding while benefiting communities in other ways. She is working closely with Dr. Venkataramanan, examining flooding in Chicago, and says she is excited about how the data collected could inform City actions and policies.

 Students Revika Singh, Isabel Azpiroz and recent PhD graduate Liliana Hernandez Gonzales are also working as researchers on the We are Water team.

Both Dr. Venkataramanan and Ms. Ruen have plans to move away from Evanston and will therefore be much less involved in the project. The project will continue through the ongoing partnership between Citizens Greener Evanston’s Watershed Collective and Northwestern University’s Center for Water Research.

“What we’ve created is really a rich bed that could grow a lot of things,” said Ms. Ruen. 

Adina Keeling

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...