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!