Sustainability of Water Quality in Chicago

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Water is one of the most essential elements to sustain life. Water does not only connect every single aspect of life, but it is undeniably a fundamental human need. Every person requires at least 5-13 gallons of clean and safe water daily for drinking, sanitation needs, cooking and much more. Regardless of scientific improvements, there are still about 780 million people that do not have access to an improved water source. It is also estimated that 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation as well. Clean water and access to food are simple things we take for granted each and every day. Without clean water or ways to sanitize water, people are left with unclean, deadly water that can make them seriously ill or result in fatal outcomes.

Much of this crisis can start to be address with first accessing the proper information through the right channels. Information is key, and that is what this research paper is designed to do. The information provided stems from news channels interviews, scholarly and newspaper-based articles, and a plethora of public data from Chicago environmental departments and both state and national municipalities. The information given discuss topics such as efforts in providing clean water to Chicago citizens, programs created in Chicago to aid the efforts of clean water, engineering safe structures to distribute clean water, standards and regulations for clean water from city level to national level, and the benefits of having clean water.


Toxic lead has been leaking into Chicago’s drinking water, and the City of Chicago is prolonging the process to properly address the problem. In January of 2016, lead was discovered in 70 percent of the 2,797 homes sampled across the city. Three out of ten houses had lead concentrations higher than 5 parts per billion (ppb). This is the Food and Drug Administration’s higher limit for lead allowed in bottled water. Since the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan in 2014, Chicago has dispersed thousands of free lead-testing kits to its residents in order to attempt to figure out how bad the problem was. The odd thing that occurred was that once the results started to add up come together, the city buried them without any notice. Chicago had not been updating its website for tracking the results of its own tests in more than six months. This did not go by unnoticed and started to raise many questions with Chicago residents. Since then Chicago has been on the map for questionable water quality and the infrastructure that its being delivered through. According to the EPA and CDC, there is no known safe level of lead that could be present in children's blood. Consumption of the metal can cause permanent brain damage and hinder the brains development. Children who regularly drink water with more than 5 parts per billion (ppb) of lead substance have been found to have high lead levels in their blood, according to a study from EPA scientists. A plan was put in place by former mayor Rahm Emmanuel to replace 880 miles of the city’s aging water mains. The bad thing about this plan is that it leaves the responsibility to replace lead service lines up to homeowners.


The purpose of this research is to inform and provide information concerning creative programs and/or opportunities that could possibly help Chicago’s water quality. The problem with Chicago’s waterways and filtration system is that it has struggled in recent years to meet water quality standards set by the EPA and the state of Illinois. This research paper is to set a tone with the reader regarding the efforts of Chicago officials to maintain the cleanliness of Chicago’s public waterways and filtration system. In doing so, there is an intended expectation to hopefully create an avenue of educated dialogue.

Research Questions

The following are research questions that were produced to support and aide in the process to answer the main research question, “What steps have been taken to support Chicago’s water quality?” This process along with others will help me expand my research and cover the necessary focus points within my paper.

  • What programs in Chicago have been created to improve water quality?
  • What are alternatives to lead pipes?
  • Does federal standards and regulations of water quality need to change?
  • Can results for water testing be produced more frequently and accurately?


The significance of this research paper is to display the level of importance clean water is to all. Clean water provides so many undeniable positive impacts to human life. One of the biggest reasons clean water is important is because it is the main source to maintain human life. Another reason is that it helps us manage the earth better. When we take care of the Earth, we are naturally taking care of ourselves. Clean water impacts everything around us, and the information in this paper gives much significance to the issues with clean water. Whether the battle starts at home, a city, or an entire country it needs to be realized as a top priority issue.

Literature Review

From the Beginning

President Nixon created a federal environmental agency that was named The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on July 9th, 1970. The purpose of the EPA is to protect all human health in America and the environment that surrounds us. The EPA makes sure and tends to Americans having clean air, land and water, national efforts to reduce environmental risks, federal laws protecting human health and the environment, environmental stewardship, contaminated lands and toxic, and chemicals in the marketplace that need to be reviewed for safety.

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Water quality standards are requirements of either state, territorial, authorized tribal or federal law approved by the EPA that define the desired condition of a water body. The fixed condition will allow for it to be protected or achieved by the EPA enforcing it through law. Water bodies are used for purposes of recreation like swimming and boating, scenic enjoyment, fishing, and are also the home to many aquatic organisms. To protect human health and aquatic life water quality standards shape a legal basis for regulating pollutants that enter the waters of the United States (, 2019).

Water quality standards consist of three core components: selected uses of a water body, criteria to protect selected uses, and antidegradation requirements to protect current uses and high quality/value waters. States, territories and authorized tribes also have the choice of incorporating additional requirements in their water quality standards. They could be things along the lines of general policies and water quality standard modifications. They also adopt water quality standards to protect a designated use(s) of a water body (, 2019). The goal of this literature review is to give insight into the City of Chicago’s treatment of water quality to match the standards created by the EPA and/or state, territorial, and authorized tribal standards. It is the hope to open up a discussion about the measure of efforts the City of Chicago has taken in its responsibility to provide safe and clean water to the public.

Process of Sampling and Analysis of Waterways

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has created an environmental monitoring program that monitors the water quality of the streams and canals within its territory. Annual water quality results of water quality data collected have been published through the District from 1972 through 2015. According to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRDGC), surface water samples were taken at 28 different locations in the year of 2015. The samples were acquired monthly, with one of the three main river systems being sampled on a certain day. Sometimes frozen or low current conditions limited sampling at certain locations (Abedin, 2015). The MWRDGC laboratories had conducted 52 analyses on each one of the water samples that were collected from the waterways during 2015. Eleven sites were tested in the Chicago River System, six sites in the Calumet River System, and eleven sites in the Des Plaines River System.

Opportunities to Sustain Clean Water

It has been recorded that Chicago’s metropolitan area water practices have been inefficient and has led to many violations of the standards and laws that govern water changes from Lake Michigan (Anderson & Meng, 2011). A different approach that supports reuse of wastewater could speak to many of the inefficiencies within Chicago’s water treatment. Although recycling wastewater has been utilized in Illinois, it is rare, particularly in an urban location. The report created by Anderson and Meng describes obstacles and positives to recycling wastewater in the Chicago metropolitan area, and it also considers how this information could be used to endorse changes in water management policies moving forward.

Lead Pipes Effect on Water

Lead is unsafe to consume at any level, according to the EPA and the CDC (Center of Disease Control). Consumption of tiny concentrations of lead can permanently damage developing brains and contribute to heart disease, kidney failure and other health problems (Hawthorne & Reyes, 2018). A peer-reviewed report published in The Lancet, a London-based medical periodical, projected that more than 400,000 deaths a year in the U.S. are linked to lead exposure. To no surprise, there are no federal standards for the amount of lead found in tap water at individual homes. Findings have reported unsafe effects when concentrations surpass the FDA’s standard for bottled water. In a recent peer-reviewed report, EPA scientists warned that when children under age 7 drink water containing more than 5 ppb (parts per billion) of lead on average, the amount of the metal in their blood can rise above CDC health standards.

Utilities are considered to be in compliance with federal water quality parameters as long as 90 percent of the homes tested have lead levels below 15 ppb. This is a standard the EPA set almost three decades ago because the agency thought it could be met with corrosion-inhibiting chemicals (Hawthorne & Reyes, 2018). This means that inherently these standards and regulations alike must be changed in order to fit the times of today to better water safety to the communities all over. Chicago conducts this type of testing in only 50 homes every three years simply because this is the bare minimum that is required of them. A long as the bare minimum is met, then there technically are no illegal issues among meeting the standards, but ethics come into play eventually. City officials say the results show residents have no cause for concern, but this is only because of how lackluster the tests being conducted are. There will never be a great amount of qualitative data because of the quantity of test required to take. Altogether, removing lead pipes in general is the top fix to both improve water quality tremendously and prevent lead poisoning deaths.

Effects on Recreation

As we all know, the Chicago River has a pretty infamous past with it being the center of pollution in Chicago. The 150-mile-long river was initially used to power the thriving agricultural industry in the Midwest region. Very tiny attention was paid to its environmental and civic value. By the 21st century, it was polluted with sewage and waste from factories. Storms caused the Chicago River to overflow, and it posed a severe risk to Chicagoans’ health. This led to the city that reverse-engineering its flow in 1900. It diverted wastewater away from Lake Michigan and out of the region to the Mississippi River. The reversal process was essential to protecting thousands of citizens yearly from waterborne illnesses such as typhoid and cholera. In 2015, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced the Great Rivers Chicago effort. This was a city-wide process to foster a long-term design to clean up and reintegrate the three rivers of the Chicago system into city life (Davidsen, 2017). The plan layed out goals that aimed to make the river inviting, productive and livable with target progression years at 2020, 2030, and 2040. Ultimately, the city desired to attract more people to a river front that is safer and more engaging for recreational uses with improved water quality.

For recreation purposes, the rivers need to achieve the water quality standards set for them by the EPA in 2011. Meeting these standards and more would allow for safe swimming, paddling, fishing, canoeing and much more fun recreation for the rivers. It is recorded that nearly 1.5 million Chicagoans and tourists flock to the popular Riverwalk each year. The Riverwalk is a 1.25-mile pedestrian walkway that extends from Lake Shore Drive to the south bank of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown area. New cleanup efforts are happening as an $11,000 pilot program running through the fall seasons helps spearhead that motion. Its purpose is to suck in the bacteria-laden water using a mesh screen to catch oil pollutants and floating garbage. This is already looking to being big steps in the right direction. Regardless, beyond swimmable urban waterways, this hopeful plan could offer a distinctive way of looking at the role of how a river can connect a city.


Ultimately, water quality is an extremely important issue in the City of Chicago, and it has known to have been a problem for the past few decades. The goal of this literature review was to share information about the City of Chicago’s treatment of water quality to match the standards created by the EPA and/or state, territorial, and authorized tribal standards. It is the intention to open up a discussion about the measure of efforts the City of Chicago has taken in its responsibility to provide safe and clean water to the public. With the knowledge of how lead effects our water and human bodies, recent results of Chicago’s water testing, and opportunities to treat and recycle water better, the public will be able to make improved and efficient decisions that create a safer and high-quality water system for Chicago’s citizens.

The ethics behind the efforts of the City of Chicago to strive for great quality of water to the public is in question, and it is on the public to hold Chicago officials accountable for providing the best resources possible and protecting our basic human rights. There are many ways and steps to take in order to shake up legislation and make it more accurate to revise standards and regulations that should reflect society today. Change is inevitable, but it is our obligation as humans to keep up with change and change traditions and laws in order to reflect that.

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