Connecting Waterpeople

The Great Lakes as a source of wealth in the Midwest

  • The Great Lakes as source of wealth in the Midwest
  • The state of Illinois aims to leverage its abundant water resources to drive innovation and economic growth, transitioning from a rust belt to a clean belt economy by 2030.
  • Freshwater from the Great Lakes provides a critical supply chain component for various industries and businesses.
  • While water resources offer promising opportunities for development, they should be considered a common good and managed sustainably. 

About the entity

Cities in the US Midwest experienced an economic decline as a result of the shrinking of the traditional manufacturing industry for many decades. Now the state of Illinois aims to transition from a rust belt to a clean belt economy by 2030, taking advantage of its vast water supplies, reports Bloomberg.

To do this, Current, a Chicago-based water innovation hub, has put forward a strategy to drive water innovation and economic growth, growing and sustaining the Blue Economy, a “collection of companies that develop and provide technologies, products and services that management the movement, quality and use of water”. The water cluster was already a $16.7 billion industry in Illinois in 2020, supporting 186,000 jobs.

The Great Lakes contain more than 80% of North America’s freshwater, and 21% of the world’s freshwater. Alaina Harkness, Executive Director of Current, highlights the importance of the region’s water availability, not just for the region’s climate and residents, but also as a critical supply-chain component for manufacturing, food and beverage companies, data-processing and storage centres and chipmakers, noting how “not having access to it is a risk for businesses.”

Chicago’s Chief Marketing Officer and President and CEO of World Business Chicago, Michael Fassnacht, also stresses how the city can capitalise on having access to freshwater. “A lot of industries — be that electric vehicles or food, life sciences — they have a lot of water needs”, he said; and added that corporations “will look at climate resilience and water safety, so being next to water is a massive, massive factor”.

Chicago can sell water for a lower price than other large American cities, but lost customers in recent years after price increases. That has changed with a recently signed 100-year agreement to provide treated water from Lake Michigan to Joliet and surrounding communities beginning in 2030, valued at $1 billion. Joliet, 35 miles southwest of Chicago, is the third largest city in the state of Illinois and home to 150,000 people.

In a context of abundant water resources, it will be important to guide development that makes a wise use of those resources, and is inclusive. In Joliet, the switch in water sources from groundwater to lake water is a must –  the aquifer the city currently relies on for its water supply is becoming depleted, and it is anticipated it will no longer be sustainable by 2030. Joliet is a growing warehouse and logistics hub that has boomed with the rise of online shopping, with significant water needs. There are concerns about whether new growth attracted by water availability under the new scheme will increase freight volumes and associated greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the rise in utility prices for residents. Water bills are expected to increase from a current monthly average of $34 by an additional $44 to $54 in 2030, in a community where almost one-fifth falls below federal poverty guidelines.

Water resources are certainly a promising tool for development, but in the absence of water scarcity drivers, they still need to be considered a common good and be valued. Harkness said the region needs policies to safeguard its water resources. Improving water management to make better use of resources will continue to be the focus of the blue economy, whether it is upgrading infrastructure, enhancing water and energy efficiency, or addressing water pollution. 

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