The development of Chicago and northeastern Illinois has been intimately tied to water, particularly Lake Michigan and the Chicago Area Waterways. The wastewater treatment plants of the past will become the power centers of the future by harnessing resources—including nutrients, energy, solids, and water itself—to bolster the economy and ensure regional sustainability.
The story of Chicago’s development is inextricably linked to its relationship with the natural environment, beginning 16,000 years ago when the land was covered and compressed by an enormous glacier. Ever since, urban planners and policymakers have grappled with how to manage a city built on flat, swampy land, and what to do with the animal and human waste that accumulates in urban environments. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the solution was to move waste as far away from the area as possible. The Chicago River, which originally flowed into Lake Michigan, was converted into an open sewer and reversed, sending the flow—and all the wastes dumped into it—downstream. Over the 20th century, sewage treatment plants were constructed to minimize the potential for harm to humans and the environment. Now, however, our thinking is changing. Rather than discarding waste products, wastewater treatment plants are beginning to recover the resources that flow through them—including nutrients, energy, solids, and water—and transform them into assets that generate revenue and protect the environment. This potential for resource recovery means that the sewage treatment plants of the past will become the power centers of the future.