Published: January 6, 2020

Where Your Water Comes From—And Why You Should Care


You expect water to flow from the tap when you turn on a sink. But how does it get there?

By Adeyinka Ladapo, Public Relations intern

A recent exhibition at the Field showed what it really looks like for water to travel to our homes. State of Water: Our Most Valuable Resource was based on a book by photographer Brad Temkin. His images of water treatment facilities pack a powerful punch. They show not only the complexity of water purification but also its immense importance in our day-to-day lives. 

Behind the scenes 

I was shocked to see the complex management that goes into sustaining our access to water. Taking a closer look at the water reclamation and purification process gave me a new appreciation for the beauty of water and the importance of conserving it. 

Threats to our water 

Climate change has a direct effect on water. Higher temperatures cause more water to evaporate, putting some communities at risk for water scarcity. Disruptions in the water cycle can lead to increased and more intensive rainfall, and stormwater runoff leads to flooding in coastal regions. In a concrete jungle like Chicago, paved and hard surfaces lead to a phenomenon called urban runoff—which is generally more intense and can increase pollution of vital water sources. When the stakes are this high, water management is no easy task. But both gray and green infrastructure can help ease the process.

Gray infrastructure includes any human-made water management resource—from reservoirs to dams to wastewater treatment plants. Green infrastructure uses natural habitats to manage stormwater runoff, flooding, and other environmental issues. 

While Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has significantly expedited the process of purification—at a rate of one million gallons per minute—scientists think an interplay between gray and green infrastructure is the way of the future.

Wastewater treatment plants are having to clean so much water, and their capacity is changing as cities are growing. We’ll need a lot of different kinds of infrastructure, including green infrastructure.

Dr. Katherine Moore Powell, Climate Change Ecologist

Behind the greens

Green infrastructure means helping nature do what it does best. Soil absorbs excess water, while plants naturally filter out pollutants. Green infrastructure is particularly helpful to urban areas because of city population growth. As populations increase, the capacity to process and reclaim water will need to grow as well, and green infrastructure can do a great job of decreasing urban runoff pollution.

Green infrastructure also promotes biodiversity. Many green projects are modeled after prairies, a habitat that certain organisms depend on for survival.

The Rice Native Gardens at the Field use native prairie plants like coneflowers.

Zachary Johnston

Climate scientists hope to use small green spaces within urban settings to create a connected network that functions like a prairie. In the Field’s own Rice Native Gardens, we replaced turf grass with native prairie plants that help with stormwater retention. This change helps improve the quality of water that drains into Lake Michigan—the very source of Chicago’s tap water. 

Farther south along Lake Michigan, you’ll find the sandy Indiana Dunes. For years, the dunes and beaches have suffered the effects of climate change, but Field Museum scientists collaborated with local park managers and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to create a Climate Change Adaptation Plan. It provides actions land managers can take to help a landscape evolve and survive in the face of climate change. 

Three people stand on a sandy path that cuts through dune grass on both sides. All three people are looking off to the left and one of them is pointing. They cast long shadows on the sand in front of them. The dark blue water of Lake Michigan is in the background, with lighter blue sky above it.

Residents of Dune Acres, Indiana, hike Cowles Bog Trail—one of the many paths that make up over 70 miles of hiking trails in the Indiana Dunes.

Katherine Moore Powell

One way to combat climate change in the Indiana Dunes is through prescribed burning. This is the use of intentional, controlled fires to manage land and promote biodiversity. When I initially heard about the practice, I was surprised because of how destructive it seemed. But, when carefully managed, fire can remove invasive species and promote the rebirth of plants.

Prescribed fires reset the system; some trees won’t even produce seeds without fire. But it's important to note that prescribed fires are controlled, conducted in normal to wet conditions, and limited in scope—unlike destructive wildfires that occur when conditions are dry.

Dr. Katherine Moore Powell

After a burn—which only trained experts should conduct—new vegetation grows. As plants compete for water and nutrients, they absorb the water and pollutants that would’ve ended up in the lake. It’s a successful combination of human activity and natural processes.

Water fills our glasses, washes our clothes, and so much more. It’s empowering to know that we can use a variety of approaches to preserve, purify, and protect this essential resource.