Medical consensus agrees that humans can generally survive for three days without water. For many of us, water is not something we spend much time thinking about. It is involved in nearly every aspect of our lives, from hydration to hygiene to power generation, yet those who are privileged enough to have consistent access to clean water tend to not give it much thought. Going without sufficient water is frequently thought about as a problem for people in the Global South. Water.org, an international nonprofit fighting to give all people around the world access to water and sanitation, observes that 1 in 9 people lack access to safe water at home. As climate change and poor policy decisions grow more pressing, the problem of access to clean water is becoming more and more prevalent in the United States. According to a 2015 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the water supply for about 21 million Americans violated nationwide health standards, as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency. We are seeing these impacts in places like Flint, Michigan in the 2010s, where a change of water service resulted in the lead poisoning of an entire city, and in Texas in early 2021 as infrastructure failed due to drastic snowfall and temperature change. Though many people remain blissfully unaware, water supply issues and contamination concerns are creeping up all around us.
Although Lake Michigan is a major source of water for communities in northern Illinois, some neighborhoods, specifically, the southwest suburbs, draw from sandstone aquifers deep under the surface of the Earth. For over a century, water withdrawals from these aquifers have depleted the groundwater levels by considerable amounts, leading the Illinois State Water Survey models to conclude that water withdrawals will be unsustainable in the year 2030. This demonstrates that the southwest suburbs of Chicago – with much of the impact being on Joliet – could no longer be able to deliver water to its residents within the decade if a new water source is not rapidly found. In Joliet alone, a city approximately 65 square miles in size, the impact is 147,344 people in 47,563 households without access to water.
Access to clean and safe drinking water is not a concern unique to the residents of Joliet, Illinois. From an American perspective, one of the most well-known water quality crises is that of Flint, Michigan. Back in 2014, dangerous levels of lead were found in the water that Flint was distributing to its residents, creating long-term health issues and an outbreak of Legionnaire disease that killed at least 12 residents and affected tens of thousands. The crisis was man-made, and its source is eerily like the situation in Joliet. Under emergency management, officials made the decision to switch Flint’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River -- despite the Flint River’s known history of being a dumping ground for industrial waste. Numerous scholars, such as qualitative social scientist Laura Pulido, identify the situation in Flint as an incident of racism and racial capitalism, where human lives were devalued below financial gain. In Pulido’s words, Flint “is one of those rare moments where the larger public can actually ‘see’ the structural nature of environmental racism, which, in turn, offers us a chance to move beyond highly contracted conceptions of racism that have characterized the liberal and neoliberal eras.”
More recently, in March of 2021, residents of Jackson, Mississippi went a month without clean running water, due to a system-wide collapse of outdated, failing infrastructure and long-term neglect, according to WBUR. Similarly, during the very recent incident of severe winter weather in Texas, millions of Southern Americans went for days or weeks without access to clean, safe running water as pipes burst, infrastructure failed, and systems froze. In one week, at least 44 deaths were reported because of the severe winter weather, according to CBS News. Though the weather was unexpected, this was yet another example of faulty water and energy systems being neglected and leaving vulnerable Americans with no way out.
The Water Project, a global nonprofit advocating for water accessibility and sanitation, does extensive research on water crises around the world and has been deeply involved in this work for 30 years. The shocking truth of water globally is that 1 billion people do not have reliable access to safe water. Water shortages are not a problem of the future, but a major issue that people around the globe deal with today. And water shortages are not just an issue in poorer countries, such as those in the Global South. The Water Project explains that the Colorado River is beginning to dry up in certain areas. Similarly, Lake Mead, an Arizona body of water that supplies water to 22 million people, is rapidly running dry. Our country’s high consumption rates of water, whether it is from wasteful habits or over-generous piping, are depleting our storages of the resource faster than they can be naturally replenished. Though it may seem to many that water is readily accessible, it is quickly becoming a larger and larger issue for many of the world’s population.
All this to say, the water crisis both globally and nationally is nothing new. It is shocking to hear of stories like the one in Joliet, where an aquifer is expected to be an unsustainable source within the decade, because many of us live with the luxury of water ready to flow from our taps. The reality is that water is a very precious resource, and its cleanliness and availability need to be protected for future generations. A look at the Joliet water conflict sheds light on our global water crisis.
The water level concerns in Chicago’s suburbs are by no means news. Stanley A. Changnon, Jr., a researcher from the University of Illinois, documented Illinois’s issues with water supply more than 60 years ago in 1952 in the forty-fifth volume of Illinois Academy of Science Transactions. He wrote that, in Joliet, “water levels in the bedrock deep wells have dropped as much as 400 feet over a period of sixty years…from 1890 through 1950.” With research dating back to the nineteenth century, subsurface water withdrawal in highly populated communities in the Chicagoland area has long been an issue that has surprisingly been ignored by local government up until the last couple of years. Joliet’s Mayor Bob O’Dekirk shared in a January City Council meeting that Joliet is not alone in this delayed response to the crisis. He flippantly admits in the meeting that the neighboring town of “Aurora is sitting on the same aquifer as Joliet but started this process 30 years ago.”
On April 12th, 2021, I had the opportunity to speak with Allison Swisher, the Joliet city Director of Public Utilities. In 2018, she got involved with the Rethink Water Joliet project, the leading contributor to the Alternative Water Source Program that eventually decided on Lake Michigan as the new supplier of Joliet’s water. The Joliet Water Conservation Subcommittee was the primary driver behind this project, and Swisher came onto the team when they elected to hire an engineering firm to assist with the study of alternative water sources. In August of that year, the work that Rethink Water Joliet has done kicked off and has grown since then.
A long-time resident of Joliet, Swisher notes that concerns surrounding sustainable water sources in the region date back to the 1960s. In the 1980s, DuPage County kicked off their efforts to switch their water source to a more sustainable alternative, and the city of Aurora made similar moves roughly 30 years ago. From the city government’s standpoint, Swisher says that “it should not have been shocking to anyone…it’s been a known issue” that the aquifer was not going to be a sustainable source for Joliet for long.
The Rethink Water Joliet project has divided the work of obtaining a more sustainable source of water into four major sections: alternative evaluation in 2020, preliminary design in 2021, final design from 2022 to 2024, and construction from 2025 to 2030, with the goal of starting the flow of new water to residents by the end of 2030, just in time for the aquifer to become an unstable source. So much goes into the process of supplying new water to residents, and there was no shortage of challenges for the government officials and consultants working within this project. “Since we knew it was going to be a constant matter which alternative was selected,” Swisher explains, “some of the challenges [involve] trying to engage the public and make sure that we took such a complex subject and boiled it down into a way that our elected officials the public could understand.” While it was a priority for the Rethink Water Joliet members to hear public opinions, they received a total of about 100 comments, which means about 0.7% of Joliet resident voices were heard. Swisher notes that “We definitely wish we could have had more input from the beginning, but we definitely did contact key stakeholders, and there was a lot of people in the region who are supporting Lake Michigan as the most sustainable and reliable source for the city.”
Despite seemingly low political participation, Joliet residents, especially those from working families involved in activism efforts, have not exactly been silent in the face of the water decisions. According to Rethink Water Joliet, the Joliet City Council has begun raising water rates by 10.5% annually since November 1, 2019, with total increases estimated at around an additional $44 to $54 per month. In response to public outcry due to these bill increases, Swisher says that “[This project is] not optional…there isn’t free money out there for us to be able to complete the project, we have to support that through the rate that we charge our customers.” She does mention that the city is currently researching affordability programs that they can offer to residents who may be unable to play the inflated water bill rates as the city switches over. Overall, the Lake Michigan water source had “fewer unknowns” and “less risk,” and the suppliers of the water source are “committed to changing their entire philosophy on relationships with their wholesale customers,” making it, in her opinion, the best possible solution to Joliet’s impending water crisis.
Strong opposition has arisen in the Joliet community about the action the city government’s response has taken recently to address this impending water crisis. Whenever water infrastructure fails or drastic decisions are made about a new water source, the working families in the city are disproportionately affected. Spearheading the movement for residents’ water is Cesar Guerrero, a fourth-generation resident of Joliet running for City Council. In his official statements, he claims that his primary reason for running is that he believes “that safe drinking water is the least that the working families of Joliet deserve.” Joliet government ultimately selected Chicago’s water plan over Hammond, Indiana’s, and journalist John Ferak explains that this decision will raise the average water bill to $138 per month per family by 2040. During a public comment portion of a City Council meeting where the details were explained, Guerrero is reported saying that “even if the council in 35 years can vote to decrease the rates, what are we going to do in the next…36 months? There is an immediate need that people are experiencing, people are already on utility assistance…we don’t need to talk about price decreases in 35 years, we need to talk about creating price caps now, immediately.”
I spoke with Jeremy Brzycki, a founding member of Working Families Joliet and a 7-year resident of Joliet’s working-class subdivision, Marquette Gardens. Working Families Joliet is a coalition of residents who wanted to get more involved in championing working class interests in the city. Their agenda includes criminal justice reform, police reform, pollution, and advocating against NorthPoint, a development company that plans to convert 3,000 acres of prime farmland in Joliet into an industrial warehouse complex. From his perspective, water has been an issue in Joliet for a long time, and the low replacement rate of the local aquifer – only 3% per year - has been a known issue for over 100 years. From lead service lines to radon contamination in the aquifer to frequent boil orders, Joliet residents are constantly worried about the quality of the water that comes out of their tap. Joliet endures a high frequency of broken water mains, primarily in lower-income communities. “It’s people that are already hurting that are having the biggest interruptions to their service,” Brzycki explains.
It was a phone call from the mayor of the neighboring town of Aurora that first alerted the Joliet mayor to the severity of the water accessibility issues to come. From the start, Joliet seemed to have a difficult time working progressively to find solutions. Brzycki does want to give some credit to the mayor for creating a Commission to search for new water sources. But then water affordability became a huge point of concern for Working Families Joliet late last year when it was discussed that Joliet would likely choose the water source from Lake Michigan. Brzycki explains that there are many challenges that came with purchasing water from Chicago, such that “Water bills are going to triple, and that’s going to impact some people more than others. Especially if you are having issues with affordability right now, that is going to become a big problem for you. The biggest issue we have right now is that people have fixed incomes, or they don’t work a job that pays a lot, so they’ll have problems paying their bill, and from there you’re going to have issues with water shutoffs and people conserving water that shouldn’t…Affordability was not initially addressed until after a lot us raised the alarm that eventually this is going to be a problem for people that make less than you do, Mr. Councilman.”
The emphasis here is on how little water affordability was prioritized in the search for a new source of water, and how engineering, logistics, and costs to the city were considered before the needs of those who already need help with their water bills. He explains that alternatives such as the Southland Water Commission, a collection of communities in the south suburbs that wanted to work to purchase water together, were dismissed too quickly and that the decision to source from Chicago was hasty, leaving Joliet in a bit of a rush to find other communities that can join in on the deal with Chicago to lower the prices to residents.
Above all else, Brzycki maintains that the city cannot allow residents to go without water. He sees progressive water rates – a system where those who have the most disposable income or large industries that use water for drilling and fire extinguishing should pay the most for their water and those who have the least income should pay the least – as a viable solution to the issues of water affordability. Beyond that, he explains that water crises like the one in Joliet need to be treated as a federal problem, because smaller cities like Joliet simply do not have the funds to take on the debt involved with adequately supplying affordable water to their community.
“I think we should really approach this as a nationwide problem,” he says, “and provide grants to communities that are already having these issues. Obviously, water accessibility is an issue for us, but imagine in Arizona, imagine in California, this is going to be a problem.” Legislators at the national level need to speak up for smaller communities that cannot take on billions of dollars to support their communities, and it is important that Americans are aware that this is a global issue that will only worsen as time goes on.
If there is one thing Brzycki would want the average American to do, it would be to start asking questions about their water. “Flint, Michigan is not a unique situation, it’s just one that is precipitously bad and got a lot of attention,” he says. “But there are a lot more communities that are struggling with the same thing. If everyone does not have a water quality report publicly available in multiple languages, people need to really take a good look at their water source and how sustainable it is.”
Even though the decision has been made to deliver Lake Michigan water to Joliet for skyrocketed prices, there are no shortage of developments in the case. Anger and disbelief that has brewed under the surface and in working family communities is erupting to the surface. Fighting over water rights is now a harsh reality for Joliet residents, and time can only tell what happens next. The crisis in Joliet illuminates other places in the world where access to water is quickly becoming an issue, such as San Diego, New Delhi, Tokyo, and Sao Paulo, and demonstrates what needs to be done to save these places from a similar fate.