When asked about her stance on water scarcity and reuse, Debra Shore, Commissioner of Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) for the past 8 years, paraphrases a quote from The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman: “In the last century, we moved water to people. In this century, people will move to water.” With roughly 20% of the world’s freshwater supply held in the Great Lakes, she and other forward-thinking politicians in the region are looking to innovative, sustainable ways to make the most of this increasingly sought-after resource in their backyards. There is growing sentiment that the population exodus from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt may soon reverse, placing civic leaders at a crossroads to envision and prepare for the shifts in land use, urban culture, and economic structure to come.

Debra Shore, comissioner of Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District for the past eight years.

Debra Shore, comissioner of Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District for the past eight years.

Shore’s tenure as commissioner has become a platform for broad-based discussions on improving watershed management in the Chicagoland region, though those discussions center as much on the “sewershed”—what happens to Chicago’s water after it goes down the drain—as they do on the water held in Lake Michigan. Shore’s office has a slew of recent initiatives to capitalize on Chicago’s abundance of water, but they have nothing to do with making greater withdrawals from the lake. Instead she’s looking at ways the MWRD “can use the availability of treated water as driver for economic growth.” The volume of the Great Lakes may seem vast, yet “people intuitively get that it makes sense to use water more than once,” Shore says.

Getting WET

WMRD’s Calumet wastewater treatment plant sits at the heart of city’s old industrial core on Chicago’s Southside. Once an area of bustling working class neighborhoods and thriving factories, it has become increasingly derelict over the past 50 years. Littered with brownfields and deeply disinvested, there is one undeniable and untapped resource remaining: the 300 million gallons of treated wastewater discharged daily into the Cal-Sag Channel, the canal excavated a century ago to transmit barge traffic from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River and beyond to the Mississippi. In collaboration with Commissioner Shore’s office, Martin Felsen, a professor in the Illinois Institute of Technologies College of Architecture has proposed a “Water Enterprise Trade Zone” as an economic incubator to attract water-intensive industries and revitalize the area as an international hub for sustainable manufacturing technologies.

Dubbed the “WET Zone,” students in Felsen’s design studio are “illustrating what an industrial park would look like next to a wastewater treatment plant powered by recycled water,” he says. So far they’ve identified eight industries that are heavily reliant on water and are likely to be drawn by the prospects of a more sustainable, less expensive source. They range from data centers, which use immense quantities of water for cooling servers, to more traditional industrial water users, such as paper mills and processors of agricultural products. Future-thinking industries such as vertical farms are also being considered along with off-the-wall recreational ideas, such as a faux ski slope.

“The park part [of the industrial park] is a serious thing,” says Felsen, who envisions the WET Zone as an integrated district that provides jobs along with other resources for the community, such as greenspace. His students are devising ways for this industrial park to actually produce some of the raw materials for manufacturing, such as hops vines (irrigated with effluent) for beer made with thoroughly treated wastewater. “All of the hops needed can’t be grown on-site, but we can grow some,” he says. “It’s very much about exhibiting parts of the process to people.”

Political Alignment

While the local design community brainstorms what Chicago’s future wastewater powered economy might look like, Shore is busy making the political case and aligning current infrastructure projects and the MWRD’s long-term fiscal strategy to support these goals. Unlike California and the Southwest where the arid climate (and ongoing drought) has created strong political will to reduce, reuse, and recycle water resources, “the largest barrier to reusing water in our area (Cook County),” says Shore, “is that potable water is so cheap. Scarcity won’t drive reuse.” But wastewater as an economic engine has struck a vibrant chord with the public and policymakers.

Percentage of the world’s freshwater supply that is held in the Great Lakes

Gallons of treated wastewater discharged daily into the Cal-Sag Channel

Tons of daily food waste that would be diverted from Chicago’s waste stream by a proposed program

Annual pounds of fertilizer to be made from extracted highly soluble phosphorus from Chicago’s Stickney Water Reclamation Plant

The WET Zone is not yet formally recognized by the city, but the MWRD has made a preliminary agreement with a company called First American Water to establish a “polishing” plant for bringing the Calumet effluent up to the various purity standards that may be required by companies setting up shop in new the new industrial park. The company would also be contracted to lay the pipe and manage the sale and distribution of treated wastewater to industrial customers.

The Wastewater Economy

Establishing a system for wastewater reuse is but one of Shore’s goals as commissioner. Two others are already advancing from concept to implementation—both of which contain a convincing economic argument.

The anaerobic digesters at the Calumet wastewater plant produce methane in the decomposition of sewage sludge, which has always been harvested at a small scale to heat the facility, but will soon be available for sale to nearby industrial facilities for their own energy needs. A program is being established to divert 440 tons of food waste each day from Chicago’s waste stream that will feed into the biogas digesters, boosting methane production at the site by 160 %. “Preliminary engineering is underway and contracts are being negotiated,” Shore says.

Likewise, phosphorus—another valuable wastewater resource—will soon be exported from Chicago’s Stickney Water Reclamation Plant as fertilizer. Ostara Nutrient Recovery, a Portland, Oregon-based company, has partnered with the MWRD to build a small facility at the site that will extract enough soluble phosphorus to produce nearly 10,000 pounds of fertilizer, which will then be sold for $400 per ton under the trade name “Crystal Green.” Shore expects the facility to be operational by the end of 2015.