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It’s action time — if you care about your drinking water

Heavy Chicago area rains often overwhelm the drainage system.

Last weekend was overflow time in Chicago.

So much rain fell that millions of gallons of untreated water, including raw sewage, were shunted straight into Lake Michigan to keep rivers and canals from flooding.

Not a pleasant thought. We get the water we drink from that lake.

When so much rain falls that homes and businesses are at risk of flooding, officials release water into the lake that normally would go to a sewage treatment facility. The water contains sewage — including the stuff flushed down toilets — because in Chicago and older suburbs the same pipes carry stormwater and sewage.

Later this year, the first phase of a new reservoir in McCook will open, which will ease flooding during big storms. By itself, though, that won’t be enough to keep sewage out of the lake.

That’s where the average citizen comes in. Last month, local environmentalist and civic groups launched a more grassroots campaign, “overflow action days,” in which people are asked to keep as much water as possible out of the system during heavy downpours. On an overflow action day, you’re asked to take shorter showers and delay running the dishwasher or doing laundry. Anything that reduces how much water goes down your drain cuts down on the water flowing into somebody else’s basement and the raw sewage flowing into the lake.

You also can help when it’s sunny out by installing rain barrels on your downspouts, adding rain gardens to your lawn and putting water-saving devices in your home. All of these measures will reduce the amount of water flowing into waterways during heavy storms.

The program is backed by everyone from the Shedd Aquarium to the League of Women Voters. To sign up for overflow action day email alerts, go to www.chicagoriver.org.

Beach season is almost here. We’ll all enjoy it more if the water is as clean as we can make it.

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