A beach with a sand dune in the foreground and wavy water in the background.
A 100-year, $1 billion agreement between the cities of Chicago and Joliet will transport water from Lake Michigan through a 31-mile pipeline. Credit: S. Nicole Lane

With the world’s sixth-largest freshwater lake at our fingertips, Chicago’s cup runneth over with bragging rights. Climate migration is predicted for the Second City, with hordes of people from out west tapping into our water privilege: our Great, and fragile, Lake. But currently, in Middle America, there’s a city running out of water. 

No, it’s not in California or Arizona. It’s 44 miles from the shores of Lake Michigan. 

Joliet has a population of around 150,000 and is a major commercial center for the entire nation. If you’ve ever ordered something from Amazon or bought something from IKEA or Home Depot, it probably passed through the city. 

Experts predict that within the next decade, Joliet won’t have any water left. The groundwater supply from Joliet’s 21 deep and five shallow wells, located all over the city, has almost been exhausted. The issue is that the area is using more water—for commercial and personal reasons—than can be replenished. 

Since the 1960s, the city has been exploring alternative water sources. ​Janet Henderson from Rethink Water Joliet explains that Joliet regularly monitors the levels in the wells. In fact, Henderson says, the wells are performing better than expected, with amounts higher than projected by the 2018 Illinois State Water Survey. “However, water levels in some wells have declined more than 600 feet over the past 100 years as a result of long-term over-pumping of the aquifer,” she says. 

Joliet isn’t the only city with a water problem

The Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system is the midwest’s most extensive. It supplies groundwater to five collar counties: DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will. If it collapses, those communities will need a new source of water, since the aquifer cannot be replenished. With no other options—drilling even further will result in salty water and contamination—Joliet and surrounding communities turned their eyes toward Chicago. 

In April 2023, former Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and the former mayor of Joliet, Bob O’Dekirk, shook hands and signed a landmark 100-year, $1 billion agreement. This agreement sealed the fate of Lake Michigan’s water and will result in its transportation more than 40 miles away. 

Joliet, Channahon, Crest Hill, Minooka, Romeoville, and Shorewood signed a preliminary agreement that creates a new regional water transmission system and a new regional water utility, the Grand Prairie Water Commission, that will offer sustainable and reliable water to the region by 2030. 

Water will flow from Chicago to Joliet after a 31-mile pipeline, costing up to $1.3 billion, is built to connect the lake to the city, along with upgrades to the Southwest Pumping Station next to Durkin Park in the Scottsdale neighborhood. Construction for the pipeline is scheduled to begin next year. 

The finances behind the plan include a divide in construction costs, with each community paying a share. Members of the commission will each pay Chicago for their water use, which they approximate will be $30 million a year. 

Before Chicago, Joliet also considered getting water from the Kankakee or Illinois rivers, as well as from Hammond, Indiana. However, in January 2021, the Joliet council voted 7–1 to select Chicago over Hammond. Joliet and the Grand Prairie Water Commission will be responsible for the construction of the pipeline as well as its operations and maintenance. 

So, will this mean that everyone, from coast to coast, can take Great Lakes water? Not exactly. 

“If Joliet uses all that it is allowed, then these communities would not be eligible to receive Lake Michigan water and could be left high and dry. This is a dangerous probability for Illinois.

In 2008, the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement that protects the eight Great Lakes states and governs how their waters are used and managed, became federal law. The agreement also says that Great Lakes water must stay within the Great Lakes Basin, which consists of parts of Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all of Michigan, as well as areas of Ontario and Quebec. There are exceptions to where water can be diverted and sold; Joliet and the surrounding communities are one of these exceptions, as they are outside of the basin’s boundaries. 

“The pipeline from Chicago to Joliet is an expensive piece of infrastructure that moves Great Lakes water to the farthest point out of the watershed,” says Dr. Rachel Havrelock, the director of the Freshwater Lab at the University of Illinois Chicago. 

Some, along with Havrelock, worry Illinois may oversell, exceeding its water limit with this century-long agreement. These communities use, on average, 98 million gallons of water a day. Once water arrives from Chicago, they will have to reduce their water usage by 40 percent. 

While the 94,000 square miles that make up the Great Lakes Basin hold six quadrillion gallons of water, less than one percent of it is renewed by rainfall and groundwater. In January 2023, Lake Michigan-Huron water levels hit a record low. Considering their replenishment is more important than ever, as our livelihood depends on their future. 

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court set a water diversion limit for Illinois of 2.1 billion gallons per day. Now that Joliet has access to our water, this means other surrounding communities, in due time, may receive less when it’s their time to quench their thirst. 

“If Joliet uses all that it is allowed, then these communities would not be eligible to receive Lake Michigan water and could be left high and dry. This is a dangerous probability for Illinois. Warehouses and industries could receive high-quality drinking water that they don’t need, while households have nothing,” says Havrelock. 

If Chicago exceeds its water withdrawal limit, the city will have to head back to court to increase its limit, putting stress and pressure on water in the lake. Moreover, by making an exception with Joliet, will other towns and cities in Illinois have an exception made for them? 

Havrelock says, while the plan will strengthen the bond between Joliet and Chicago, it’s not without flaws. The aquifer’s drawdown has not been examined, and industrial warehouse and trucking hubs are moving into the area, using the remaining bits of water. 

NorthPoint Development, a Missouri-based company, is planning to move to Joliet with a warehouse district that would use approximately 500,000 gallons of water every day. This would stress the limits of Supreme Court diversion restrictions and run the risk of endangering future water access. 

Alternative options

The Freshwater Lab has created a dual pipeline plan that Joliet could use, where one pipeline delivers drinking water and another delivers recycled wastewater to industry sites. Cities like Austin, El Paso, and San Antonio in Texas have already put this type of dual system into place. 

Illinois does not currently allow wastewater recycling. The Illinois Environmental Council drafted a bill, House Bill 3046, to allow such a change. It stalled in the Senate, but there may be hope for the bill to pass next year. 

“By recycling water currently sent out of state through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, we can meet industrial and commercial needs and safeguard sufficient Lake Michigan water for drinking and health care uses,” explains Havrelock. 

A map of the Freshwater Lab’s proposed dual pipeline plan, which would deliver both drinking water and recycled wastewater. Credit: Courtesy Rachel Havrelock

In addition to Texas, California—which has been battling a water crisis going back 1,000 years, according to paleoclimatic records—uses water recycling for drinking water. 

Havrelock says, “If we recycle water for industry around the Great Lakes, then we can preserve freshwater from the lakes for drinking, human health, and ecosystem viability. It’s a win-win solution that expands our overall water supply and allows for economic growth.”

What can Joliet residents do to save their water? 

“Protection of Lake Michigan water quantity is important since we are going to see lurches in water levels, alternating between floods and droughts,” says Havrelock. 

So, what can folks do to save their water? Henderson advises Joliet residents adopt good water use habits by “repairing leaks, installing water savings devices, and managing outdoor water use.”

Rethink is spearheading the Joliet Alternative Water Source Program, a public outreach campaign that will facilitate communication between Joliet, its residents, surrounding communities, and local businesses. The program promotes conservation efforts for residents like low-flow toilets and rain barrels. Moreover, Joliet’s Customer Water Portal allows residents to view their real-time water usage. 

Joliet is leading the way for proactive approaches toward water sustainability and finding a solution for the future of water sourcing. And now, we see that Chicago is one of those cities that holds the key. 

Eventually, the rust belt states may have their comeback. While the Great Lakes Compact prevents states like California, Arizona, or even midwestern states like Iowa from tapping into the Great Lakes, people will always need water. Ultimately—hopefully far in the future—Chicago may be the epicenter of the gold rush, as Middle America becomes a critical climate haven.

In an April 2021 visit to Chicago, Vice President Kamala Harris said, “Wars have been fought over oil. In a short matter of time, they will be fought over water.” Little did Harris know that Joliet’s water crisis is an example of what the future of the Great Lakes region will encompass and how soon those so-called dystopian “water wars” may begin.

related stories

news & politics

The moment met the CTA

The CTA’s Meeting the Moment plan marked a renewed effort to fill hundreds of vacancies reportedly left by the pandemic—but data shows new hires aren’t digging the agency out of its staffing shortages.