—by Joel Brammeier, the Alliance for the Great Lakes

Lake Michigan: Cap or Tap?

Yes, tap water from Lake Michigan IS safe to drink!

Chicagoland residents are fortunate to live near Lake Michigan, one of the world’s largest, cleanest sources of fresh water. The Lake services water to millions of people in Illinois everyday. While it provides the public with great recreational opportunities as well as valuable tap water, some have raised concern about the safety of it for drinking purposes. Even though the 1960s may have been plagued with warnings of the problems associated with pollution in the Great Lakes, times have changed.

Thanks to the combination of the Clean Water Act and our sophisticated treatment facilities that clean lake water before it enters our faucets, the water from Lake Michigan is among the best municipal water supply in the world.

So, in short: Myth BUSTED—with some intel from the U.S. EPA: Human Health and the Great Lakes.

The Situation

Long-time Great Lakes residents may recall scores of dead fish on the shore, a zone in Lake Erie with no animals or plants, and raw pollution floating in the water. These and other problems rendered the water near some Great Lakes cities extremely dirty in the 1960s and led to the passage of the groundbreaking federal Clean Water Act2. Times have changed, to say the least. Thanks largely to federal and state rules prohibiting the dumping of pollution, to better research to understand problems, and to local stewardship by communities and volunteers, the health of the Great Lakes is improving.

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The Problem

Problems stemming from invasive species, climate change, and pollution remain to be tackled;
even so, Lake Michigan’s drinking water quality has increased tremendously over the last 30 years. Recent reports have, however, caused some people to worry about the safety of our tap water. The culprit of this worry is pharmaceuticals and its alleged emergence into our environment.

Yet, levels of pharmaceutical pollution in Lake Michigan today are lower than in some cities that rely on groundwater. To keep it that way, it’s essential that cities like Chicago pursue a policy of prevention – knocking out emerging chemicals at the source before they get to the environment. If the pollutants do reach our water system, not all is lost: the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago treats sewage before it is discharged and is partnered with U.S. EPA to monitor pharmaceutical pollution in the Chicago waterways.

The Solution

Chicago’s tap water was rated as “Excellent” in a 2003 nationwide study1—the only city to take home that honor. To ensure the quality of Lake Michigan’s water supply is consistently up to par with public health standards, officials test the water for contaminants including bacteria, viruses, pesticides, and minerals2.

In a 2008 taste test, Chicago tap water even beat popular bottled water brands for taste3. While some Illinois residents notice an occasional change in taste that has recently been attributed to excessive algal blooms4, you can rest assured that the tap provides some of the highest quality water available in the world year-round. As such, cities in the region have been attempting to promote Lake Michigan’s tap water as a reliable, healthy source for drinking. Chicago is a perfect example: confidence in the quality of Lake Michigan’s water is so high that in 2008, city officials imposed a tax on bottled water. This angered some residents, but could have a positive environmental impact: if more residents now choose tap water, less finite resources will be used for their production and millions of plastic bottles won’t end up in the landfill.

Every boater, beachgoer, water drinker, and volunteer that spends time on Lake Michigan is one more citizen that understands how essential restoring and protecting these waters is. And this reality hasn’t been lost on the economists – a 2006 Brookings Institution report makes it clear that the renewal of the upper Midwest economy depends on both the protection and sustainable use of local water resources.5

The Great Lakes are a vital resource, which is why the region invests billions of dollars annually to protect them.6

Green Things You Can Do

  1. Conserve water and reduce your waste by carrying a reusable water bottle with you and filling-up at a sink or a drinking fountain.
  2. Help spread the word about the clean, safe, and tasty source of drinking water that’s right here in your backyard!
  3. Support government efforts to promote tap water use and to keep our drinking water clean.

Written by Joel Brammeier


1 Natural Resources Defense Council. 2003. “What’s on tap? Grading drinking water in U.S. cities.”
2 U.S. EPA: Children and Drinking Water Standards.
3 Eng, Monica. 2008. “Chicago tap v. bottled water?”
4 U.S. EPA: Great Lakes Program Report on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. 2007.
5 Austin, John. 2006. “The Vital Center: A Federal – State Compact to Renew the Great Lakes Region.”
6 Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. 2007. “Local investment in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence”

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