Thanks to Shannon Stratton at Threewalls, we met with Frances Whitehead for some conversation and a cool drink at the Jupiter Outpost coffee shop in the West Loop. Francis is a Chicago-based artist who, among many other projects, has recently been working as an “embedded artist” with the City of Chicago. Her interests include environmental concerns and specifically, brown fields redevelopment. It was a great opportunity for us to learn more about her work, her approach as well as a chance to discuss our project.

Her website lists a number of her projects including The Knowledge Lab that she has established at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she teaches.



Polishing the water from Lake Michigan, the “Jewel of the City”

Our visit to the Jardine Water Purification Plant began with the same security precautions that we encountered at Stickney Water Reclamation Plant:  written proposal, background check and absolutely no photography permitted during the tour. We were given our tour by the Chief Operational Engineer, who patiently led us through the entire purification process.

The water is brought in from two sources on the lake: the water cribs that sit over a mile offshore and directly from the shoreline near the plant. The water cribs were originally designed in the late 1800s to try to secure cleaner drinking water from the lake, as the shore water was contaminated with city waste. They are still used today and bring the water into Jardine via large pipes buried under the lake floor. One of the most exciting moments on our tour was opening the “water crib” box. This was a simple, four foot tall plywood box sitting on the concrete floor that looked like it had many, many coats of paint applied over the years. It was a lovely light blue color with hand painted lettering in red that read “water crib.” Opening the lid, we peered into a seemingly endless body of water, beautifully illuminated  and full of small fish. The space was much larger and magical than the simple box suggested and we felt a bit like we were peering down the proverbial rabbit hole.

Throughout out tour we repeatedly noticed visually striking and colorful elements that were punctuated by the massive scale that is required at Jardine—the largest capacity water purification plant in the world. Huge equipment that dwarfed our own perceptions of personal mass was painted rich shades of aqua, blue, yellow, green and red—it was as though the whole system was color coded. Also of note was an orderly line of continuously running faucets for monitoring water quality at different locations in the plant, glass-faced operational and metering rooms and a vast, dimly lit space filled with a grid of water tanks, each the size of a small swimming pool that contained slowly rotating blades for carefully controlled water movement.

We couldn’t help but notice the beautifully manicured landscaping surrounding the facility. Given the visibility of Jardine from Navy Pier and Olive Park, this carefully considered public facade seems to be an effort to represent the accomplishments of the water purification process at Jardine. There was no such landscaping at the Stickney Water Reclamination Plant!


Establishing the link between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico

We took the #9 bus to 2701 South Ashland Ave. where the Chicago River intersects with the Sanitary and Ship Canal. Canal Origins Park was established in honor of the the Illinois & Michigan Canal which connected the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River for the first time in 1848. This canal transformed Chicago from a small community into one of the main transportation centers in the country. The I&M Canal has been replaced by the Sanitary and Ship Canal which opened in 1900. It was established for the purpose of reversing the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan to protect the city’s drinking water supply from waste and sewage that was regularly dumped into the river.

The intersection of the Chicago River and the Sanitary and Ship Canal

A view of downtown from the Sanitary and Ship Canal

Fishing for blue gill and catfish from the Chicago River


Measuring the value of the resource.

Stickney Water Reclamation Plant, part of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago Area (MWRDGC), is the largest capacity waste-water treatment and reclamation plant in the world.  We must preface our experience at Stickney by including the high security protocol involved with public entry into such a utility.

The Road to Stickney. No photos were permitted inside the facility, but you can take your own tour! Click on photo for link.

Following a written proposal requesting a tour of the plant, we were asked to send a formal tour application and release form along with copies of our state driver licenses to the Public Information Office no less than 30 days prior to our scheduled tour. We were also instructed to bring our IDs with us for entry, and warned that photographs were not permitted.  We walked through each of these requirements feeling the weight of the vital resource and MWRDGC’s responsibility to its 5.25 million residents.  A serious disruption at the plant could cause great hazard to the water supply being fed back into the Shipping and Sanitary Canal, downstream to the Des Plaines River, and ultimately, into the Mississippi.

We were fortunate to be introduced and led through Stickney by Civil Engineer Peter O’Brien.  He was generous with his knowledge, and helped us to understand that the purification process of the Chicago’s waste-water is engineered to be quite similar the natural purification process in a river.

The Stickney Plant removes pollutants from the waste-water by a series of physical and biological processes.  Waste-water enters the plant at either of two locations and is immediately screened to remove large debris.  It is then pumped into a chain of processing equipment designed to remove floating material and dissolved/finely dispersed contaminants.  The processes include gravity and aerated grit chambers, fine screens, primary settling tanks, aeration tanks, and final settling tanks.  About 98% of the pollutants entering the plant with the waste-water are removed by means of the system shown in the Process Flow Diagram.  The treatment process is similar to the natural purification process in a river.  As the flow progresses downstream in a river, heavy solid material settles to the bottom, and organic material carried in the flow is biodegraded.  In the plant, primary treatment involves the physical settling of heavy solid material.  In the secondary treatment process a culture of microorganisms consumes the organic material in the waste-water and converts it into cell mass and respiratory byproducts, while some additional organic material adheres to these microorganisms.  This cell mass is then separated by gravity in the final settling tank and the clean treated water is discharged to the Sanitary and Ship Canal.” (MWRDGC Stickney Water Reclamation Plant-General Information, April 2007)

Our greater understanding of water reclamation has fueled our appreciation for the advanced technology and engineering that supports this crucial public utility. Our tour of Stickney has also made us realize that it is necessary for us to understand the cycle as a whole by also witnessing the process of water purification and distribution.

WENDELLA BOAT TOUR: The 90-Minute Combined Lake and River Tour

Made on the water, by the water.

Our first research adventure after arriving to Threewalls was a 90-minute Wendella Boat Tour of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.  As we motored through the cityscape, our guide narrated a brief history of the city, in addition to the names and historical significances of the passing skyscrapers and architectural eye-candy. Throughout this collection of stories, he continued to emphasize that the city of Chicago was “built on the water, by the water.” He also pointed out the water cannon that shoots off a huge stream of water for 10 minutes at the top of each hour in celebration of Chicago’s many years of water reclamation.

For us, perhaps the most significant part of the tour was entering Lake Michigan from the mouth of the river up through the locks. The locks are carefully controlled to monitor the amount of water that moves from Lake Michigan into the Chicago River and from there to the Des Plains River, the Illinois River, the Mississippi River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.

From our the vantage point on Lake Michigan, we began to identify the architectural and engineering feats that would be the most relevant to our own research:  Jardine Water Purification Plant and several water intake cribs further off the shore. To our surprise, we later learned that, until the 1960’s, residents of Chicago and the surrounding area received their drinking water directly from the lake to the tap, without any process of filtering or treatment.  Yum!