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We are water rich. But we shouldn’t be water spoiled

Shards of ice pile up on Lake Michigan along the South Haven Pier in South Haven, Mich., on Tuesday. (Joel Bissell/Kalamazoo Gazette via AP)

Friday is World Water Day. I challenge Chicagoans to take this day to change how we think about water and how we reuse it.

Many of us think drinking water is good water and everything else is bad water. This is no longer true. What used to be considered bad water can be made good again. We have the ability to take some of the dirtiest water you can think of — even effluent (treated sewage) — and turn it into drinking water. Orange County, California, uses effluent to produce 100 million gallons of purified water a day to serve 2.4 million residents. That’s 20 percent of their total water supply.


In Chicago, we just turned treated effluent water into beer: a Czech Pilsner and an Amber Ale to be specific. No joke. I just drank some, and it was delicious.

While effluent beer is not going to save the world’s water, the concept behind it can.

Water reuse is not new. Israel is famous for it, and in cities such as Hong Kong it’s illegal to flush your toilet with drinking water.

But in Illinois, it’s the opposite. We are one of a dozen states that require the use of drinking water for everything — from toilet flushing and washing our cars to irrigation and manufacturing. In Illinois, you are not allowed to use gray water, storm water or effluent for anything, unless you have special permission from the governor.

Chicago is lucky to be located on Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes hold 90 percent of the U.S. water supply and 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. But this is no excuse to be wasting massive amounts of water.

We are water rich. But we shouldn’t be water spoiled.

Water reuse can become real in Illinois. The Illinois Department of Public Health has proposed new rules and standards that would allow for safe and reliable water reuse.

One day, your shower water could be filtered and used to flush your toilet. The rainwater that normally floods your basement could be stored and used to irrigate your local park. And, yes, the goodness you flush down the toilet could be treated and turned into beer.

Water reuse is not just about saving water, saving the Great Lakes and saving our planet. It is also about building a more sustainable state, rebuilding the region’s infrastructure, supporting innovation, saving consumers and companies money, and creating a new pipeline of green jobs.

Chicago is uniquely positioned to be a national leader on water reuse. Chicago is home to two international airports. From airplane washing and de-icing, to water cooling and runway maintenance, plus the thousands of gallons of water flushed and consumed by their 85 million passengers, our airports could save billions of gallons of water a year.

Chicago is an industrial and manufacturing hub. Many of these companies use over a million gallons of water a day. If just three of those companies switch to non-potable water, that’s a billion gallons of water saved a year.

Chicago is a global city with 2.7 million residents and 55 million visitors a year. If we reuse just 1 percent of the 100 gallons each person uses a day, we could save over a billion gallons of water a year.

Billions of gallons of water reused. Millions of dollars saved. Thousands of jobs created.

While Congress debates a Green New Deal in Washington, we can make it real here at home.

So, let’s do this, Illinois.

Josina Morita is a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.


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