Chicago Tribune – Commentary
Rust Belt no more: Chicago should be capital of the Water Belt
Rachel Havrelock February 9, 2018
A low fog skims over Lake Michigan at Montrose where a fisherman, surrounded in the swirling fog, tries to catch Coho salmon Thursday Jan. 11, 2018. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)
The Rust Belt: The words evoke decaying factories, segregated cities and swing states with harsh winters. Places where jobs have dried up, population has dwindled and deep legacies of industrial pollution may be left to fester by an Environmental Protection Agency uninterested in the protection of anything.
We’ve got the place all wrong. We should focus on what actually causes things to rust — water.
The Great Lakes — Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior — hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and the key to survival in the era of climate change. With crippling drought and overwhelming floods occurring in so many corners of America combined with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s mounting attack on wetlands, streams and other small bodies of water, there is a need to transform our much-maligned Rust Belt into a Water Belt, a freshwater oasis for the world. As the region’s biggest city, with shuttered factories that could hum again and a skilled workforce ready to spring into action, Chicago can lead the way.
How does the Rust Belt become the Water Belt? Through three steps that need to begin now, before this precious resource slips through our fingers and leaves us standing in the rust.
- Keep water public. President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan opens the door to the rapid privatization of public waters. By reducing the federal money available to upgrade treatment, pipes and sewage while subsidizing corporate investment, the plan allows multinationals that have no interest in the health of water or local communities to abscond with our most valuable public resource. Water privatization in Chicago would cause particular damage, distancing residents from a public asset whose value will soon skyrocket. Illinois cities where corporations such as Illinois American Water and Aqua Illinois have privatized water service have seen ballooning water rates and increased wait times for repairs. Perched on the shore of Lake Michigan and set within the Great Lakes watershed, Chicago should own the pipelines and set the rates for water to its neighboring towns and suburbs.
- Keep corporations out. Multinational corporations understand just how valuable clean, fresh water is becoming and look to enter the market through any available gate. We need to keep our eyes on Veolia, a global water management company. The city of Flint, Mich., brought Veolia on board as a consultant right before residents were poisoned by corrosive water running through lead pipes. At present, Veolia only has a hand in Chicago’s wastewater, processing biosolids at the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant, but we should not cede more control even if federal funding decreases.
- Stop the dismantling of the Great Lakes EPA office. The region’s economy and the health of our bodies depend upon smart limits on how much drinking water is extracted from the Great Lakes and what gets pumped into them. Cathy Stepp, who has scrubbed websites of scientific data and facilitated the rapid deterioration of public waters in Wisconsin, was recently appointed head of the Midwest region’s EPA. Her record indicates that she may accelerate dumping and toxic runoff into our lakes, endangering public health, food production and real estate values.
Some will claim that allowing multinational corporations to privatize water maximizes efficiency and provides struggling municipalities with needed revenue, but this is short-term thinking. Great Lakes water not only sustains us now, but ensures that shrinking cities become livable, vibrant places in the future. To get there, we’re going to need to make sure that polluters pay and that corporations reimburse taxpayers the true cost of withdrawing our water. With this revenue, we can explore the replacement of dangerous lead pipes and the implementation of cutting-edge technologies for water filtration and reuse.
The water of the Great Lakes belongs to us. This collective ownership can ensure a future of social stability and economic revival, but Trump administration cuts to federal funding combined with the unleashing of water profiteers could dash these dreams. Nowhere do we have more to lose than in the Great Lakes region.
Rachel Havrelock is director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Freshwater Lab.