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Summer 2019

Solutions for Troubled Waters

Discovering solutions for water quality issues and climate change challenges in the Great Lakes. By Emily Ayshford

Image: Michael Goss

Lake Michigan is often thought of as the crown jewel of Northwestern. As large as an inland sea, its waters are ever-shifting: They can sit as still as glass on a calm spring day, or crash onto the painted rocks during summer thunderstorms, or collect into ice sculptures along the Clark Street Beach in subzero winters.

The lake is a draw for students and professors alike, whether for exercise — professor Will Dichtel is known to swim in the cool waters — or just for daily contemplation.

But this immense body of fresh water, whose shimmering beauty convinced Northwestern’s  founders that this was the place to build the University, has been under threat since the early 20th century.

The Great Lakes, the second-largest source of surface fresh water in the world and the source of drinking water for more than 48 million people in the U.S. and Canada, have undergone substantial changes over the past 200 years of human activity. Development, agriculture, infrastructure and industry have left the lake bottoms laced with legacy contaminants and toxins. More recent threats include invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels, microplastic pollution and algae blooms.

great lakes water infographic heads of state

Infographic by Heads of State

Now the Great Lakes region faces another imminent challenge: climate change. A new report by Midwestern and Canadian scientists and experts details how climate change could affect the Great Lakes and threaten public health, fish and wildlife, water quality, and the regional economy.

“We are already seeing the effects of climate change on Great Lakes cities,” says Northwestern civil and environmental engineering professor Aaron Packman, an expert in water scarcity, water management and urban flooding who helped write the report. “One example is the recent severe flooding in the Midwest, which is associated with changing weather patterns in the winter and early spring. These events discharge sewage and fertilizer into the Great Lakes. Flooding is very damaging to vulnerable communities in cities like Chicago.”

The report highlights the impact of climate change on the 34 million people who live in the Great Lakes area and lays out several problems, including lower quality of drinking water, extreme weather and decreased crop yields.

While it can be easy to be pessimistic, Northwestern researchers say these challenges can be solved. Through partnerships, new technologies, startup businesses, public policy roles, and as legal advocates, Northwestern faculty, students and alumni are keeping water resources like the Great Lakes clean and sustainable.

Packman is one of several Northwestern professors looking for innovative, cost-effective ways to tackle water issues. Chemistry professor Will Dichtel has created a polymer that, when placed in water, binds and eliminates PFOA, a human-made chemical that was used to manufacture Teflon and Scotchgard. Kimberly Gray ’78, a civil and environmental engineering professor, is helping develop a new membrane covered with a thin polyelectrolyte film that could be used in drinking water treatment. Water security, both in Chicago and worldwide, is the focus of anthropology assistant professor Sera Young’s research. And Julius Lucks, a chemical and biological engineer (and Young’s husband), is creating a new class of smart diagnostics to cheaply and quickly assess water quality.

“Water is life,” Packman says. “We all need water to live. So if you drink water, you should probably care about what exactly is in your water, make sure that you have enough water, and make sure that we have a sustainable supply of water.”

“Water is life. We all need water to live. So if you drink water, you should probably care about what exactly is in your water, make sure that you have enough water, and make sure that we have a sustainable supply of water.” — Aaron Packman

Packman has cared about water since he was a kid growing up in St. Louis, on the bluffs of the Missouri River. Today, as head of Northwestern’s Center for Water Research, he leads or is part of several initiatives aimed at providing solutions to water issues in the Chicago area. By partnering with other universities, as well as with institutions like Argonne National Laboratory, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and the Nature Conservancy, he’s now able to turn research into implementable solutions.

northwestern center for water research director aaron packman

Aaron Packman, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Northwestern Center for Water Research.

One initiative is SAVEUR (Systems Approaches for Vulnerable Evaluation and Urban Resilience). The multidisciplinary project involves using data from the Array of Things sensor network throughout the Chicago area, which measures air quality, water levels and other environmental conditions to determine how extreme weather events (like heat waves and storms) impact the city. The sensors — currently 100, eventually more than 500 — will support high-quality data models that can reveal the city’s vulnerabilities as climate change makes these events more common.

According to the new climate change report drafted by Packman and others for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the forecast is grim. By the end of the 21st century, temperatures in the area are expected to rise 2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, creating an additional 30 to 60 days of extremely warm temperatures each year. A warmer atmosphere will mean more extreme rainfall events, which is especially bad for Chicago, where the infrastructure leaves little permeability for rainfall to be absorbed back into the ground. Instead, localized flooding can stir up industrial contaminants, like metals and chemicals that are left in the soil, and introduce them into waterways. The city’s sewers carry both rainwater and sewage, and when too much rain falls, the city is forced to discharge the mix of stormwater and wastewater into Lake Michigan.

Packman and his collaborators ultimately hope to use the data to make recommendations on introducing green infrastructure that can reduce vulnerability to extreme weather.

“I’m excited to be able to do fieldwork here, where we engage the community and government agencies to work together to solve this problem,” he says. “It has been very positive to see many more people understand what it takes to deliver clean and safe water to meet our needs while avoiding degradation of natural resources and ecosystems.”

“Our ultimate goal is to make materials that can make water cleaner and safer and ensure our water security long-term.” —Will Dichtel

Finding ways to deliver clean and safe water sometimes has origins in unlikely places.

Chemist Will Dichtel is an open-water swimmer who isn’t afraid to traverse Lake Michigan’s summer waves, but he wasn’t focused on the extent of industrial pollutants circulating in the Great Lakes until he began to think about making new materials from sustainable sources. In his lab at Northwestern, Dichtel develops specially designed polymers that can do everything from store electricity to clean up water by taking advantage of the open space these materials have at the molecular level.

northwestern chemistry professor will dichtel

Will Dichtel, Robert L. Letsinger Professor of Chemistry

A few years ago, he and his research group began to study cyclodextrin, a sugar derived from corn, which is made from molecules shaped like tiny cups. It turns out those cups are the right size to bind and trap many pollutants found in water, including bisphenol-A (BPA) and pesticides. “It’s a lock-and-key fit,” says Dichtel, the Robert L. Letsinger Professor of Chemistry.

The first material he created from cyclodextrin in 2015 trapped hundreds of these pollutants found in water, but it did not trap pollutants that represent a growing concern: perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs), including eight-carbon derivatives known as PFOA and PFOS. These human-made chemicals have been used in industrial processes for the past 70 years. 

Even small amounts of PFASs and related chemicals are highly toxic and do not break down naturally, meaning every bit that found its way into the environment remains there. The Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory limit for these chemicals in drinking water is 70 parts per trillion, which is equal to one teaspoon in 14 Olympic-size swimming pools. Many experts think even this level is too high, and more stringent limits are being implemented by individual states.

Dichtel and his group modified their cyclodextrin polymer to bind PFOAs and other related chemicals. Now, when placed in water, the material binds the pollutant and eliminates it to below 10 parts per trillion, which is in line with the lower advisory limits introduced by Michigan, California and other affected states.

Using machine-learning algorithms, the group is fine-tuning the material for other pollutants and will continue to tweak them as new chemical pollutants are discovered.

Dichtel and his group are also beginning to develop next-generation membranes that could potentially remove dissolved salt from seawater in a much more efficient manner. “Our ultimate goal is to make materials that can make water cleaner and safer and ensure our water security long-term,” he says.

In 2016 Dichtel co-founded the materials startup CycloPure to bring his PFOA-binding materials to market. The company’s research and development lab in Skokie, Ill., is working to scale up production while reducing costs. The company hopes to launch its first PFOA-binding product later this year.

Dichtel says the company has been making great strides in developing products for both municipal water treatment facilities and household consumers.

“We want consumers to have peace of mind, a line of defense between the water coming into their homes and the water they put into their bodies,” he says.

“Clean water, clean air and being able to live someplace that is safe and not prone to flooding — too often we don’t think of those as universal rights. I think they are.” — Kimberly Gray

The legacy of how companies and humans have treated the Great Lakes drives the work of Kimberly Gray ’78, chair of civil and environmental engineering. For her, each problem — like contamination and flooding — exists as part of a network of actions and interactions that disrupted ecological processes.

civil and environmental engineering chair kimberly gray

Kimberly Gray, chair of civil and environmental engineering

Gray uses her background in environmental chemistry to examine everything from how contaminants like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) move up the food web in the Great Lakes to how to better develop and invest in green infrastructure in low-income areas of Chicago that are prone to flooding.

Most recently, she is working with Ken Shull, professor of materials science and engineering, to develop a new membrane that is covered with a thin film of polyelectrolyte complexes (PECs), a charged polymer material. As membranes filter water, they can become easily clogged with bacteria and other materials. PEC films can be easily dissolved and reformed, meaning they can be placed over membranes, collect potential clogging material, then be dissolved to take that material away. They can then be reformed over the membrane.

The researchers have published a paper showing how the concept works and are now tweaking the film to make it kill bacteria. Such membranes could be used in drinking water treatment facilities and at point of use. That’s important in areas like Chicago, where drinking water is safe but can be contaminated by lead pipes on its way to consumers.

“Clean water, clean air and being able to live someplace that is safe and not prone to flooding or being able to eat food that’s not filled with contaminants — too often we don’t think of those as universal rights,” Gray says. “I think they are. Environmental and ecological quality is something that we need to work to preserve and protect.”


“Our children in the city shouldn’t be doomed to failure before they even grow up.” — Nancy Loeb

Nancy Loeb champions clean water as a universal right. For her, protecting Chicago residents from the city’s legacy of lead pipes is the area’s No. 1 environmental concern.

director of the environmental advocacy center nancy loeb

Nancy Loeb, clinical associate professor of law and director of the Environmental Advocacy Center

That’s a strong statement, considering Loeb, clinical associate professor of law and the director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, works with students on environmental justice projects around the globe. In recent years, her students have studied how to develop rules for defining underwater pollution in a warming Arctic Ocean and how to develop legal mechanisms for protecting habitats in the Amazon rainforest.

But Loeb aims to protect not only environmental spaces but also the most vulnerable populations affected by environmental threats. In Chicago, that includes low-income and minority populations, who are often most affected by lead in water, which is correlated with learning disabilities and growth and hearing impairment. 

Though the use of lead pipes has been banned in the city since 1986, many homes still use older pipes, and tests have found that when the city disturbs lead service lines through street work or plumbing repairs, high levels of lead are released in nearby homes’ drinking water.

“We are continuing to devalue and harm huge populations of our city again, simply because they are poor communities of color where these issues haven’t been dealt with,” she says. Loeb sat on Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Health and Human Services Committee transition team and laid out a proposal for dealing with the crisis: Provide free filters to residents in high-risk communities, develop and roll out an education plan, and ultimately replace all the city’s lead service lines.

“Our children in the city shouldn’t be doomed to failure before they even grow up,” she says.

“We need to do everything we can at the local level to help preserve the environment.” — Marcelino Garcia

Protecting the Chicago region’s water is also the goal of Marcelino Garcia ’97 JD. As a boy growing up in Puerto Rico, he spent his days swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. When he came to Chicago to attend law school at Northwestern in 1994, Garcia looked out the window of the library and saw an expanse of water that reminded him of home.

commissioner of the metropolitan water reclamation district of greater chicago marcelino garcia

Marcelino Garcia, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

“It was like a sea,” he says. “But one of the best things about Lake Michigan is that when you’re finished swimming, you don’t have to scrape the salt off your body.”

Garcia has pursued a career in government and public service. Last year he was elected to the board of commissioners for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which oversees 560 miles of intercepting sewers and seven water reclamation plants that treat more than 1 billion gallons of wastewater each day. The district often receives attention when heavy rains cause the mixed rainfall and sewage system to overflow and be discharged into Lake Michigan, causing high bacteria levels in the water and forcing beaches to close.

Those discharges irk Garcia, who has always lived within an eight-block radius of the law school and had a view of the lake.

As a commissioner, he is working to develop a strategic plan that will help guide the district for the next five years. He wants the district to become more sustainable through resource recovery from wastewater and by promoting green infrastructure (like permeable alleys) within the city that will help reduce flooding and prevent sewage discharges. He also wants to develop better public awareness campaigns to educate residents to flush their toilets less often during high rainfall events, and he wants to make it easier for residents to drop off expired prescription medications so they don’t flush them down the toilet and into the water system.

“We need to do everything we can at the local level to help preserve the environment,” he says.

Clearly, when it comes to clean and safe water, there is a space for students, faculty and alumni to all play their parts, whether in research, policy or business. The growing interest gives Aaron Packman hope.

“In the summer, the sky is a gorgeous, clear blue, Lake Michigan is shining, there’s a cool lake breeze, and you can look south and see the Chicago skyline,” he says. “Here, more people are focusing on conservation, on making investments for the future. It makes me more optimistic.”

Emily Ayshford ’12 MFA is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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Reader Responses

  • I read “Solutions for Troubled Waters” [summer 2019] with great interest but was dismayed to see the No. 1 issue impacting water was not addressed — population growth. Many of the problems discussed would not be an issue if the world’s population wasn’t sprinting toward
    13 billion. All the technology in the world can’t offset the ramifications of a near doubling of our population over the next 80 years.
    Progressive thinkers tend to focus on the negative impacts of industry and business and ignore population growth. But Al Gore put it best: “Global climate change is caused by three things: population increases, certain modern technologies and people who refuse to acknowledge that population increases and certain modern technologies cause climate change.”

    Karin Crane ’00 Chicago, via Northwestern Magazine

  • Excellent, well-written article! I love the many experts featured, each addressing different problems and solutions.Thank you for this important journalism!

    Karen Allen Chicago, via Northwestern Magazine

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