Your NPR news source

The End of the Pipe

SHARE The End of the Pipe

Millions of gallons of fresh water are flowing under Chicago right now. And as our region grows, more and more people want to divert some their way. As part of Chicago Matters: Growing Forward we bring you the documentary The End of the Pipe, by independent producers Laura Starecheski and Gregory Warner. Come along on the near-epic journey of our water as it moves from Lake Michigan, into the city and beyond to the suburbs.

Along the way you’ll meet some of the people who pump, pipe, and control the future of our water. Part history lesson, part cautionary tale, The End of the Pipe brings us the awesome history and uncertain future of greater Chicago’s water supply.

WARNER: Hi, I’m Gregory Warner
STARECHESKI: And I’m Laura Starecheski. And we’re going to start our tale with a fisherman named Thomas. One morning, before work, Thomas stopped by the lake to do some fishing.

THOMAS: Oh, I hate to tell that story. Because that happened last summer. And I couldn’t sleep for about three weeks.

WARNER: Thomas was in his usual spot. He casts his line, same as always. But this time…
THOMAS: BAM! I jumped. I was like WOAH!
WARNER: And Thomas braced himself for a fight.
THOMAS: I couldn’t believe how big this was. And it was the biggest fish ever.
STARECHESKI: Finally, he gets it close to shore. And he realizes…THOMAS: I didn’t have my net!
STARECHESKI: He doesn’t have his net.
THOMAS: Again not having that net. And there was another brother, he was 50 ft away from me. And he had a net. And I was waving at this guy, waving saying, ‘I got a fish man! I need to use your net.’ And this brother, walked towards me and said, ‘Don’t depend on me.’ I got this huge fish in the water, and he’s telling me, ‘Don’t depend on me.’ With his net? I let the fish go. The line snapped.

STARECHESKI: And Thomas lost his fish.
THOMAS: And I just saw the fish wave his tail and he want deep into the water.
STARECHESKI: And in a way, his story is the perfect place to start our tale of water in Chicago. Because that guy, who said don’t depend on me. He’s like all of us.

ambi: guitar chords

WARNER: Laura and I realized we learned about water from the same dorky folk song:

Music: evaporation and condensation, the water cycle...

WARNER: It was sixth grade.
STARECHESKI: Yeah, I remember that was sixth grade because I was wearing the same harley Davidson t-shirt, every day.
WARNER: Oh, and I was in the cafeteria totally ostracized for drinking diet mandarin orange slice. Anyway…

SONG: evaporation and condensation

WARNER: Back then, the water cycle seemed complete. The rain flowing back into the lakes and back into the streams, a closed circle.

ambi: storm sounds

WARNER: But sixth graders today, they’re learning about a totally different water cycle.

HILL: You can feel the drops on your head. Like candies.

WARNER: This is Rebecca Hill. She’s a sixth grader on the North West Side. She’s the only kid on her block that goes out to play when it rains. HILL: Yeah, it’s cold though.
WARNER: Rebecca is learning about rain as not just something that replenishes but something that can destroy. Something that needs to be controlled. Hello.

HILL: I spoke to you earlier. I’m Rebecca’s mom.

WARNER: I follow Rebecca into her house and her whole family is sitting right there.

HILL:That’s my mom, Zenaida Hill, this is my dad, William Hill, and that’s my grandmother Petra Arroyo.

WARNER: Then Rebecca takes me into the bathroom where she’s going to do her science homework. You’re filling up the cup.

HILL: I’m filling up the copy and I’m ready to wash my hands.

ambi: Rebecca washing hands.

WARNER: She’s figuring out how much water her whole family uses in a day.

WARNER: How much water is that?
HILL: That’s exactly two cups.

WARNER: So let me explain. What Rebecca’s learning is that when she washes her hands whatever water she uses goes down the drain into the sewers. But it’s still raining outside. All that rain is also going into the storm drains and into the sewers. So the rain and the wastewater go to the same place, the Chicago River.

HILL: If you use a lot of water now it’s gonna cause the river to get higher.

WARNER: So that’s why Rebecca’s counting the water she uses. Because, we’re not talking about you know, vague, don’t waste water kind of thing. It’s about how much water can this river hold.

HILL: 19.5 gallons, 21 gallons...
WARNER: So Rebecca adds up all the water her family uses in a day. HILL: My family uses 25 gallons.
WARNER: Does that seem like a lot?
HILL: Yeah.
WARNER: It’s not actually that much though.

WARNER: No, cause when Rebecca took her homework back to class she learned that the average Chicago family uses hundreds or thousands of gallons a week.

STARECHESKI: That’s a lot of water flowing into the pipes, which means: even a small rainstorm could totally overload the system.

ambi: beep beep beep

STARECHESKI: But there is one man. One man who stops the system from flooding.
WARNER: One man.
STARECHESKI: One man who lowers the water levels in the river to make room for the rain.

MAZZACCO: You have to understand, we have approximately 80 miles of managed, navigable waterways. And the key word there is managed.
WARNER: And you’re the manager.
MAZZACCO: Yeah, this room. This is the waterways control room.

ambi: phone rings. Click. “Water Reclamation. Dispatcher.

MAZZACCO: How do you explain it. It’s not a job it’s like you come in you put this room on. It’s like you’re wearing this room.

STARECHESKI: That’s Larry Mazzacco. His title is systems dispatcher for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. But what Larry actually does? Is move billions of gallons of water by touching a button.
MAZZACCO: It’s awesome. Yeah.
WARNER: But what’s also awesome is the room where Larry works.
MAZZACCO: It’s stainless steel dome, with a beehive that holds our radar projector. How many monitors we got? Two, four, six???

WARNER: It’s kinda like a spaceship.

MAZZACCO: What is it, the starship enterprise? It’s the deck, this is where you’re driving.

WARNER: And Larry’s the captain. So the day we visited, it was sunny outside. But on his radar map, Larry had a storm looming.

MAZZACCO: I look here and oh!—there’s a red cell!

WARNER: When Larry sees a red cell, that’s a rainstorm, he checks all the waterways in Chicago.

MAZZACCO: I’m looking here, I’m looking there...Ah, that’s ok! Five minutes later I do my scan and everything’s ok…

WARNER: Before the rain can hit. Larry drains water from the river to make room for the rain. Or the whole thing will flood.

MAZZACCO: That’s why staying ahead of the curve is so important and you have to react. Even though it’s sunny out right now people are enjoying the sunshine, you’ve got to take action immediately. Because it takes that long, for an increase in flow to show itself at the intakes.
WARNER: All the way down the chain.
MAZZACO: Down the chain, right.
WARNER: The intake pumps where Chicagoans get their drinking water.

MAZZACO: Like now we’re forty miles away, approximately, so I make my flow changes my moves here and then I just sit and watch the effect.

WARNER: So if somebody comes to the Chicago river during a rainstorm, the rain is falling down, but the water level might be getting...
MAZZACO: Lower. Right.
WARNER: Larry can make the river levels as low as he wants to.
STARECHESKI: But sometimes, he can’t do it fast enough to handle all the rain. He told us about one storm last year that totally took him by surprise.

MAZZACO: August 23 of last year. We had everything open. And we still couldn’t keep up with it.

STARECHESKI: He’s sitting there watching the radar map. Biggest red cell he’s ever seen comes rolling in.

MAZZACO: And I always watch Rockford. Because sometimes they seem like they split they dissipate after they hit Rockford. This one came right through.

STARECHESKI: Larry’s lowering the river as fast as he can, but the water level is rising.

MAZZACO: And it just, we had to reverse! If it went any higher, there would be major flooding.

STARECHESKI: Major flooding. Meaning sewage backing up into Chicago.
MAZZACO: So we had to open the gates and reverse to Lake Michigan.

STARECHESKI: On that day, Larry had to send everything that Chicago flushed down the toilet into Lake Michigan.

WARNER: Larry must have been really devastated.
STARECHESKI: Yeah, it’s his worst nightmare.
WARNER: It’s so weird that Larry has that job. That anyone has that job.

STARECHESKI: If you really want to know why that is…we have go back.
STARECHESKI: Yeah. We have to go back. To 1850.
WARNER: We do?!
WARNER: Are we?!
WARNER: Let’s go!

ambi: Fade up 19th century music

STARECHESKI: 1850 Chicago. It’s just a swampy little town. 30,000 people.

WARNER: And the river, it’s so small.
STARECHESKI: That’s the Chicago River.
WARNER: And it’s flowing into Lake Michigan. And it stinks. STARECHESKI: That’s where factories dump their runoff…

ambi: pouring thick goop

STARECHESKI: That’s where the slaughterhouses throw their stuff.

ambi: dragging sounds

STARECHESKI: And as Chicago keeps getting bigger, the river just gets dirtier. Every time a storm comes, it flushes some of that pollution into the Lake where people in Chicago get their drinking water. Then, In 1885 comes the storm they were hoping would never come. Five and a half inches of rain in 19 hours.

ambi: storm sounds intensify

STARECHESKI: It sends the Chicago river streaming out in a noxious plume for miles out into Lake Michigan toward the intake pumps. So, the city fathers get together…

CITY FATHER: Boys! We all saw the devastation wrought by that storm. I submit to you a better plan, a bolder plan, than any Chicago has seen before. We must reverse the river.
DOUBTING VOICES: Reverse the river??
CITY FATHER: Reverse the river!

STARECHESKI: Reverse the river.
WARNER: Is reversing a river, do they just pump the water the opposite way?
STARECHESKI: No, they’re going to build a canal connecting the Chicago River to the Des Plains.
WARNER: Because the Des Plains River is lower in elevation so it’ll draw the water the opposite way. That’s pretty clever. That’s pretty easy.

STARECHESKI: No, it wasn’t easy. This is pre-Panama Canal. It took 9,000 workers. And it’ll cost 33 million dollars. That’s 19th century money.

CITY FATHER: It’s the Chicago school of earth moving!

ambi: Irish whistling

CITY FATHER: Put your backs into it! Turn that river around!

STARECHESKI: And then, after eight years of digging, just before we turn on the pumps? St Louis sues Chicago.
STARECHESKI: They’re down river. And they don’t want to drink our sewage. So, they try to stop the water. But the city fathers act first.

CITY FATHER: Wake up Carter! We’re going to open the dyke. Before St Louis gets the injunction.

ambi: horse hooves pounding, horses snorting

STARECHESKI: Before sunrise on January 2 of 1900, the city fathers gather near the dyke at Kedzie Avenue and 35th Street, where just eight feet of frozen dirt separated the river from the waters of Lake Michigan. And they attack it with shovels.

CITY FATHER: Dig, dig! It is but a question of a few shovelfuls now! It’s starting to flow!!! It’s open, it’s open! Drink this, St Louis!!

WARNER: So St. Louis never got their injunction.
STARECHESKI: Oh no, they did. They took it to the Supreme Court, but they couldn’t prove that the sewage in their water was Chicago’s.
WARNER: So, who’s poop was it?
STARECHESKI: It’s was everybody’s…everybody was dumping their sewage into the river…Chicago, St. Louis and all the towns downstream. And the bigger Chicago got, the more water they pumped. Deep under the streets, in the Water Reclamation District, the pumps got bigger and bigger…

ambi: Water Reclamation District, at 17,500 now this is our biggest pump…

STARECHESKI: And then in the 1950s, the other Great Lakes states sued. How much water is Chicago going to be able to take? In 1967 the Supreme Court put a cap on the amount of water Chicago could have.

WARNER: That’s when our story turns from the engineers to the lawyers. HENDERSON: Am I being recorded now?
WARNER: I’m tape recording, but if there’s something you don’t want me to record…

HENDERSON: No, but it’s good to get me on the record saying that I’m being recorded. Because there’s a law here that if you’re recording people with their express approval, it’s a felony. It’s called the Simon Hurley act.

WARNER: So this is Henry Henderson. He’s program director for the Midwest office of the National Resources Defense Council. And he’s a laywer.

HENDERSON: To be painfully explicit, that’s one of few things in law school that stays with you.

WARNER: To be painfully explicit, like he’s asking me to, Henderson says we suck.

HENDERSON: We suck water out of the Great Lakes Basin. And this is the legacy of modernism is fundamentally transforming and removing natural ecological barriers so what divided the great watershed of the Mississippi from the great watershed of the Great Lakes was pierced by this decision.

WARNER: And for Henderson the biggest irony is that the decision never had to happen. Twenty years later, germ theory was developed, they wouldn’t have had to reverse the river – they would have treated the sewage like every other city does. But once the river was reversed, we could pipe Lake Michigan water as far as the Supreme Court would allow.

HENDERSON: And the question arises, is this still the best way to treat largest freshwater body, on earth! And we can look out the window and see the Chicago river flowing by, sucking water from Lake Michigan.

WARNER: When Henderson looks at the Chicago river, he sees an attitude toward Lake Michigan water that we won’t be able to hold on to.

HENDERSON: One of the problems in the world today is scarcity and growing scarcity of fresh water. There’s a presumption east of the Mississippi, that our water regime is based upon extraordinary abundance. Not constraint. And the reality is that the United States has to plan for constraint.

WARNER: Of course, it’s hard to even comprehend constraint on the banks of the biggest fresh water source on the continent.

STARECHESKI: But on the outskirts of Greater Chicago, where towns are using groundwater, fresh water’s a lot more precious. And the way towns around the Great Lakes basin plan for scarcity will affect everybody’s future.

WARNER: So we left Henderson’s office. Said goodbye to the lake. And drove out to the suburbs.

STARECHESKI:…to find out just how much Chicago’s suburbs depend on each other for water—and how much it will cost all of us when the wells dry up.

ambi: car driving

STARECHESKI: We got as far as Oak Lawn, but they were drinking Lake Michigan water.

ambi: car driving

WARNER: Then we got to Tinley Park, but they were also on Lake Michigan water too.

STARECHESKI: Till finally? We got to a town called Frankfort.

HOLLAND: Lake Michigan is 38 miles from here. You can see Lake Michigan from the top of the grainery tower in Frankfort.

WARNER: That’s Jim Holland, the mayor. He met us on the edge of town – where you can actually see the suburb to the east is using Lake Michigan water. Frankfort’s still on well water.

HOLLAND: So right here, you see the fire hydrant on the right side of the street will put our fires with Lake Michigan water, and the fire hydrant on the left side of the street will put out fires with well water.
WARNER: And which puts out fires better?
HOLLAND: Of course the well water works much better for fires!

WARNER: So then the mayor takes me to see the town wells.

ambi: motorcycle rumbling

WARNER: So this is your bike?…And it’s purple! Um…
HOLLAND: they call it something else…
WARNER a more manly name for it?

WARNER: So the Mayor and I take off on his purple harley that isn’t called purple, through the streets of Frankfort, right to Jackson Park. Past this girl’s softball game and into this little building where the wells are. There are two filters there like smooth white Tylenols that fill the room.

HOLLAND: We have two wells at this site so we have two iron filters. Essentially they’re just a big filter not unlike a swimming pool filter that filters out the particles of iron.
WARNER: Turns out the water under Frankfort. It’s a little rusty. HOLLAND: You can see the orange color here and that’s what we’re taking out for our residents.

WARNER: The cost of each of these new wells and filter systems is over a million dollars. Every time Frankfort grows they have to build another one.
STARECHESKI: But a lot of people hate the water. When Greg was out with the mayor on his motorcycle I was talking to people in town.

STEIBOLD: I’ve never tasted the tap water.
STARECHESKI: People like Luke Steibold.
STEIBOLD: Bottled water that’s it. We buy bags of ice. I literally leave cups of ice around and whichever is the most melted, that’s what I drink.

STARECHESKI: And the people that do drink the water, they have to do a lot to treat it first.

ambi: Mike Stevens

Mike Stevens lives out in a new subdivision. He’s got an iron filter in his basement, a water softener in his garage, and his sink has two faucets. One of them’s filtered. With...

STEVENS: Reverse osmosis, it’s just another filter system. I don’t know if you want to try it, if you’re thirsty. Go ahead. Drink it, it’s good. STARECHESKI: It is good. Can I try some of the non-osmosis water?
STARECHESKI: Oh, you can taste something, it’s
STEVENS: Salty? Know why? You add salt to your water softener.

STARECHESKI: Even in the same house people are divided about tap water. The husband likes it, the wife hates it.

WARNER: So, 15 years ago, the people that hated the water – tried to do something about it. If any town wants to have lake water, there’s one guy they gotta see. He works in a building in downtown Chicago on the 14th floor.

WARNER: His name is Dan Injerd. He’s the guy who decides who gets Lake Michigan water, and who doesn??t.

WARNER: You should have a golden throne.
INJERD: I’ve had people refer to me as the water czar…
WARNER: The water czar?
INJERD: Which is a little bit of an overstatement...

WARNER: Actually Injerd is more like the water sheriff, the lake water sheriff.
INJERD: I’m not aware of anybody else in the country that does something similar to what I do.

WARNER: He runs the Lake Michigan Management section at the Department of Natural Resources.

INJERD: What we do here is even unique within Illinois.

WARNER: And that’s because there’s no other city like Chicago, that reversed its river, and has the Supreme Court telling us how much water we can take. INJERD: Illinois’ ability to take water from the Lake is limited by a legal decree.

WARNER: Meanwhile greater Chicago is expected to grow by two million people in the next twenty years and the amount of water is not gonna change.

INJERD: So we’ve got 2.1 billion gallons a day. Same in 1967, 2008, same probably in 2058.
WARNER: So up until now, Injerd has been able to divide up that water among all the towns that ask for it. And when Frankfort came and asked, Injerd said yes.

HOLLAND: We can’t draw Lake Michigan water out of Lake Michigan. We’re too far away. We must rely on other cities to get it to us.

WARNER: Mayor Holland says, the only way was to pipe it from Tinley Park.

HOLLAND: We have to pay Tinley Park, Tinley Park has to pay Oaklawn, and Oaklawn has to pay Chicago, and every one of them is making a little bit of money off their water.

WARNER: And when they added it all up, Frankfort realized they were going to pay over $7 per thousand gallons of tap water. The national average is $2.65.
So Frankfortians put it to a vote.

HOLLAND: And the vote came back to us and it was 65 percent no, 35 percent yes.

STARECHESKI: So – they wanted Lake Michigan water, but then they couldn’t afford it?
WARNER: Yeah, because the farther you pump the water…
STARECHESKI: The more expensive it gets.
WARNER: But, actually, that’s why Dan Injerd, the lake water sheriff, doesn’t have to say no.

INJERD: If you looked at a map of Lake Michigan water allocations, that would help explain that. We may be getting close to the limits of where it’s cost effective…

STARECHESKI: But the suburbs are having major water problems. Some are scraping the bottom of the wells. Finding radium in the water.

WARNER: Yeah, but that’s what Dan Injerd is worried about. That economic border may break down when the suburbs get desperate.

INJERD: If you’ve got a community that runs out of water, that sort of changes the cost equation in a hurry. How do you do a cost analysis of water that we don’t have versus water that you might. At that point, they don’t really care what it costs.

WARNER: And then everybody will come asking Chicago for water.
STARECHESKI: And good sheriff Injerd will have to say no.
WARNER: And that’s why towns at the end of the pipe, like Frankfort, are getting ready…for a different future.

HOLLAND: In Frankfort, that’s where the water comes from, it comes from under our homes. And we decide what the rates are, we decide how to treat it, we decide every little thing about it...

WARNER: That’s Mayor Holland. He says Frankfort’s learning to live with what they have.

HOLLAND: As long as we replenish the aquifer, we should have water for the longterm future. See this is an open water area and the farmers…

WARNER: He shows me this drainage ditch on some old farmland. It’s a trench that used to send rain back into the river. Out to the Gulf of Mexico.

HOLLAND: And instead we want to divert the water back to where it used to go…we’re going to recreate a whole swamp down here in the Forest Preserve District.
WARNER: No you’re not!
HOLLAND: Yes we are! And we believe it was the 200 years ago, and it’s gonna cost a bundle!

WARNER: The mayor says its worth it in the long run. It’s like he’s putting back the natural water cycle.

ambi: guitar chords

WARNER: You’re telling me that if it rains here, that water isn’t going to the Gulf of Mexico?
HOLLAND: No, we keep that rainwater. We hold it here in Frankfort. We drink that rainwater.

WARNER: It’s almost like scarcity doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

STARECHESKI: Or just making do with what you have. Because as we reach the limits of Lake Michigan to provide water to Greater Chicago, we’re all going to have to learn to depend on the water that’s local.

VILLARI: I don’t know. Maybe everybody should take a sailboat trip, maybe for a week...

WARNER: Laura and I met this boat captain on the Chicago River.

STARECHESKI: His name’s Ken Villari. He told us, he used to work out on the Gulf of Mexico, for 80 days at a time. He almost misses the days when he went without.

VILLARI:You know, I never told anybody, but when you’re in the middle of the ocean, it looks as though it’s an inverted bowl. You can see 20 miles in every direction. And you are the center. Your whole world is just like an inverted bowl. That’s all you know is right there. That’s the whole world to you. That’s why sailors used to long to go back to sea. Because it would start to get tarnished. And then you’d want to go back to where it was more real. At least when you were there in that inverted cereal bowl, you knew that’s all you had. It was unencumbered, I guess.

ambi: water waves

The Latest