At the Edge of the City, There’s Life



By Adrian Naves




The Freshwater Lab class of Spring 2022

How The Freshwater Lab Started

Water is an all too precious element in this world, where its true worth is vastly devalued.  Thankfully there are passionate advocates who remind us of the value of water and why we should consider protecting it at any cost.  Rachel Havrelock is the co-founder and principal investigator of The Freshwater Lab, a research institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a coalition of the humanities and social sciences, that teaches the value of drinking water and its impact on the world.  Havrelock is a professor in the English Department of UIC; her area of expertise is in water policy and diplomacy, and Middle East peacemaking.  She currently surveys how regional water management could possibly change the landscape, as well as the purpose of oil extraction and the infrastructure of the Middle East.  The Freshwater Lab is a grant-funded communal organization with a mission for both short- and long-term plans of water conservation and water usage.  But in order to understand what drives Havrelock for environmentalism and the reasoning for creating The Freshwater Lab, we first must go to the past…her past.


Havrelock grew up in Detroit and then moved to Chicago, keeping her roots in the Great Lakes region.  She has always lived near a body of water, where many industries around the area could take advantage of the water for their production process, and where many migrant workers came to work at those same industries.  But not everyone in that community has equal access to the real estate, economic benefits, clean water, or the services of infrastructure from the area.  Havrelock grew up around the time of deindustrialization taking place in Detroit, when the promise of factories with good paying jobs and a middle-class lifestyle were dwindling.  The declining quality of the jobs and the economy gave the Midwest its rust-belt image, along with Detroit, a city that was once bustling with industry.  Midwestern cities provided a stable way of life for about 30 years.  Along with the recession was a city dealing with decaying infrastructure, abandoned buildings, and intense segregation plagued with racism.  For Havrelock, going to the lake was a way of getting out of the city, “At the edge of these cities was the water, with the element for life, but also a place for gathering and recreation, and a peace of mind with a great feeling,” she said.  Connecting with the water and the lakefront, it is a great place to meet new people and come together.  These are the elements that sparked her passion for what she does now.


Rachel Havrelock


Havrelock ventured out to California for college, where at the time, there wasn’t much of an environmental movement, but she eventually landed her first project.  The research project required Havrelock to pack her bags. “My research ended up taking me to the Middle East, it was the Jordan river and my first body of water, the original holy river.  The Jordan river has been impacted by climate change and infrastructural development, which is at a historic 4% flow and is still dwindling, the river serves half of humanity,”  said Havrelock.  She got involved with programs to help save and revive the Jordan river.  These programs taught her about environmental peace building, helping bring people of all sorts of backgrounds and communities together in ways to teach them about putting policies in place to protect them and their water.


In 2014, she brought these similar projects of environmental peacebuilding to the city of Chicago, and envisioned The Freshwater Lab, “The communities that are interconnected by this water, bring some different experiences with the water, which are based on their social class, gender, and race.  As climate change occurs, it’s very disproportionate who ends up with the losses and who gets to keep on having really nice days at the beaches,” said Havrelock.  It’s important for the public to know about the health crisis occurring in the environment, and to know what the best approach to help tackle and solve these issues in such dire times.


Challenges for The Freshwater Lab

In the city of Jordan, where water scarcity is such a pressing issue, Havrelock encountered people who were more knowledgeable about their water and were eager to learn about any new water projects.  Back home in Chicago, she realized how little attention is paid to water. “Without paying attention as to what is going on with our water, all kinds of multinational corporations and private enterprises can exploit what we don’t know and what we don’t see,” said Havrelock.  So without any kind of feedback from the community, there’ll be little resistance to private companies polluting and profiting from the waters.


“In a way we love the lakes, but we are not getting those messages out there either through traditional and social media or education or by reports of the weather, the public is not really getting the information it needs in order to safeguard the water.  At The Freshwater Lab, we’re trying everything we can to boost public awareness, making reports that might be complex or obscure in the language and we try to make it easier to understand, also making it available in Spanish so more people can have access to that knowledge as well,” said Havrelock.  There are bi-partisan environmental policies that pertain to the Great Lakes area as Havrelock referenced, because there are some Republican and Democratic elected officials who want the waters to be economically beneficial.  She notes how voting can ensure the public’s environmental present and future.  “In 2022, those multinational corporations are the true beneficiaries from our public water and going forward to protect our waters we need the greater public to be the main beneficiaries,” said Havrelock.


Class field trip to Jardine Water Treatment plant (Nov 2019)


Other challenges The Freshwater Lab faces are doing projects that can help them get funding.  Frequently Havrelock brings together a group of people and they come up with an idea for a project but are unable to maintain the idea without the funding to follow through.  Besides through grants and donations, funding sometimes comes through public events or summits in which they convene with elected or appointed officials and other environmental advocates and activists in the room.


“In one of the convenes, some of the indigenous activists were trying to protect the Mississippi boundary waters near their ancestral lands and were thankful that some high-level officials were there to hear their concerns, and thanks in part to The Freshwater Lab being free and open to the public with no high enrollment fees the average person can get in and speak to these governmental officials,” she said.  In a 2017 summit, there were challenges of having governmental officials, like some mayors from the Great Lakes cities and the mayor of Milwaukee, and the environmental activists in the same room together.  The activists were very angry with the mayor of Milwaukee about some lead pipe issues; they called university officials and the press to hear speeches against the mayor.  The dilemma was that Havrelock felt that all the mayors needed to be there, but she also felt it was important for the activists to be there too, because they can express themselves from a grassroots perspective and can voice their concerns presenting how most people feel in their communities.


“The Great Lakes holds about 20% of the world’s water and there is tremendous potential, especially during climate change, to be an oasis.  But there are some things that prevent us from being that oasis, and there are things in place that make it, on an environmental level, dangerous,” she said.


Mission Goals and its successes

There are three main objectives that The Freshwater Labs would like to achieve; first is to create a new generation of water leaders from UIC students and beyond.  It’s been successful in that regard, “Because every year, anywhere from 50 to 80 students get involved and I’m happy to know what the people are doing who come through the program and become agents of great change, even if the programs fail,” said Havrelock.  Simply knowing that the students become successful afterwards, really makes her delighted.


The second objective is to make information about the Great Lakes available to the public and help people find ways to get involved.  “At The Freshwater Lab, we also create digital stories on, which helps people get to know everything about Lake Michigan with different issues and how to get involved,” she said.  Recently, The Freshwater Lab has also created, which includes everything about the Chicago River.  “The Chicago River flow was reversed in the early 1900s, so the river flows backwards.  In October 2021, they founded the Backward Water Festival, which is outdoors and is about water, arts, and ideas.  But the challenge is really scale,” she said.  Common challenges of scale will always be the size and logistics of most projects; the bigger the project, the bigger the costs.  They create catchy and compelling stories to publicize the need to protect water and college funds through donations and grants to help.


The third goal is to transform some of the systems about water use and production, finding out who benefits from the water.  “One of the challenges is that we really need new systems and approaches, and quickly, because of how fast climate change is occurring.  Currently The Freshwater Lab has a research partnership with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the agency that deals with Cook County’s wastewater.  The partnership revolves around water recycling and trying to get away from single use water, like when we wash our hands and where that water ends up, because our current system treats that water like garbage,” she said.  There is so much more that can be done in terms of treating and reusing that water for industry, agriculture, and data cooling.  Changing the system dramatically helps determine how our food is grown, how water is used, and who benefits from using it like the beverage industry.


The Backwater River Festival team, Photo by Juan Jose Ayala Jr


“We have to get the lead pipes out of the ground as well.  Most of these issues aren’t goals only wanting to be achieved by The Freshwater Lab, but also by other freshwater advocates and environmentalists who want clean water as well,” she said.  Currently in Chicago, the Little Village neighborhood, for instance, is experiencing a difficult task of trying to replace all the lead pipes in the area.  Havrelock described an environmental organization located in the Little Village neighborhood called Levjo (website an environmental justice organization, Levjo is fighting for justice, a better environment and service for the Little Village neighborhood.  Since the housing is older in the Little Village neighborhood, the cost to replace the lead pipes can run anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 per house and there are very few families who can afford that.  The Levjo organization are the best advocates for the people in Little Village, directing those funds and helping the community by providing the necessary components to get clean water, like water filters and lead water testing kits, to name a few. addresses the issue of lead pipes.  The Flint water crisis paved the way for lead water detection and knowing the best water filter available.  Chicago has more lead pipes than any other city in the country, especially in single family homes and bigger buildings.


Summeramp bird sighting in big Marsh Park


A measurement of success for The Freshwater Lab is the number of students enrolled in its class on the environment.  In the spring semester, the class has an internship component, which deals with water or the environment.  The Freshwater Lab is unique and has wide connections with public departments in the city of Chicago, and also other organizations around the Great Lakes.  Havrelock uses her connections for internships, so no student is left behind.  The program is supported by the Mott Foundation, the KBIH Family Foundation, the McDougal Family Foundation, and UIC Alumni has enabled partnerships on the UIC campus and the Great Lakes region.  Havrelock enjoys seeing students obtaining jobs and internships related to the goals of The Freshwater Lab.  The other measurement of success for the lab is public outreach, by seeing how many go to the summits or the amount that sign up for the mailing list and the number of visits their website and social media sites receive, but it’s usually difficult when seeking to go further beyond the city of Chicago.  Havrelock can’t imagine doing The Freshwater Lab anywhere else, because UIC has such a diverse group of students who come from all kinds of communities around the city of Chicago and are connected to the city and the lake.


Summer-camp at The Wild Mile


Havrelock wants readers to know what they can do to help keep the Great Lakes clean; we have to get the Line 5 pipeline out of our water and give our support to both the governor and attorney general of Michigan to go up against the state of Ohio and the oil industry, mainly from a Canadian pipeline corporation called Enbridge.  “You can put up a “No Line 5 pipeline” sign in front of your homes, contact your officials and let them know that we have to get that pipeline out of there.”…”Water belongs to the public trust, it means that everybody who lives in this watershed, has a stake in this water.  Their future is tied with water,” she said.


For further information about The Freshwater Lab and other environmental organizations, click on the links below: