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Janie Chen’s Blog

Reimagining Our Water's Future: From Stories to Solutions

Janie Chen

Posted October 15, 2012

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Graphic recording of CIW Talk "Water: A Ripple Effect" by Ink Factory Studio

When I attended the Chicago Ideas Week talk, “Water: A Ripple Effect,” I expected to hear solutions to the global water crisis. Yet when Shalini Kantayya, a filmmaker and the first speaker, took the stage, she didn’t give me answers.  She told a story. 

She told a story of a world where half to two-thirds of its people would have no access to clean drinking water by 2027. This is a world where an energy bill exempts natural gas drillers from the Safe Drinking Act. This is a world that will not change unless the story we tell about water changes.

Every speaker that afternoon, from the filmmaker, advocate, and professor to the lawyer, scientist, and self-described “water wonk,” told a different story. One story, evolved from a personal mantra to “Do what you love, help along the way,” envisioned a different future for water quality where non-potable water could be turned into drinking water. Another story about a personal water footprint challenge emphasized each individual’s potential for rethinking water demand. A different speaker told a story about the humble, blue-collar origins of Waterkeeper Alliance and the power of community participation to protect water resources. 

These stories form a new framework, a new conversation about the future of water. One in which a new, global approach to water sustainability is the only approach. One in which we rethink how we supply and demand, charge and allocate, protect and conserve our water.

In sharp contrast with this forward-thinking dialogue, one speaker told a story of the status quo: Chicago’s incomplete Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) which would use underground tunnels to hold raw sewage and rainwater before treating and dumping it into the Chicago River. Ann Alexander’s blog clearly explains why this is a story told from a failing framework and that holds stubbornly to fixing antiquated infrastructure.

As a city that “aims to be the platform for sharing big ideas and making big things happen,” we cannot resign ourselves to a story that ends with a future of water scarcity and pollution.

Instead, we must build upon the Clean Water Act, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1972. The Clean Water Act celebrates its 40th anniversary this week—Thursday, October 18. It is an American success story: Our nation’s waters are far cleaner today than they were 40 years ago.  More waters are available for fishing, swimming and as drinking water sources. The act also protects wetlands, which help filter pollutants and limit flooding.

Yet despite the achievements and promise of the Clean Water Act, much remains to be done. In order to fully realize the goals of the CWA, we must continue to engage in stories that envision a sustainable water future. 

For the Chicago River, this means re-envisioning it as a clean waterway and redefining our relationship with its waters.  Last year, NRDC and Studio Gang collaborated on Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways, a book that explores the endless possibilities for a Chicago River without the threat of invasive species or pollution.  Unlike the story of TARP, this book imagines a new story and a better future for the river, its city, and its people.

Shalini left the audience with a thought at the end of her presentation: “The story of the future belongs to you.” What is your water story? What story do you envision for our future?

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Allison VoglesongOct 16 2012 01:13 PM

NRDC has been telling great water stories, and this is one among them.

My own water story is one of making my dream come true. I envision a future where we no longer disagree on how to share water. Water can become a point of cooperation and bridge-building so to speak.

Instead, we let rivers divide us, and compete against one another for our "share," and in that process we forget what it takes to share. I hope my dream comes true, that we can all come together to do a better job securing water in the public trust, for the future.

Janie ChenOct 16 2012 05:42 PM

Thank you for sharing your water story, Allison!

One of the presenters at the CIW talk listed water-related conflict as one of the most pressing water issues we face today. Telling a different story about the future of water--like your dream of using water as a point of cooperation--is what will drive the conversation toward sustainable solutions.

Keep up the good work and the storytelling!

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