An Interview with Rachel Havrelock, Founder of University of Illinois at Chicago Freshwater Lab

Rachel Havrelock interviewing Commissioner Debra Shore of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago before a recent community panel.


I had the pleasure of meeting Rachel through mutual connections and interests recently. Since then, I have been assisting Freshwater Lab with volunteer social media strategy as they prepare to launch the new Freshwater Stories website  to educated the public about risks to the water of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes in November, 2017.

Tell me about Freshwater Lab.

The UIC Freshwater Lab is a unique program among the various programs of Great Lakes universities.  Although many institutions of higher learning sponsor cutting-edge research on science and engineering, they do not address the social context of Great Lakes issues or train students to translate and implement solid science as innovative policy. The Freshwater Lab understands that communication, community partnerships and political processes are vital to maintaining the long-term health, use and conservation of invaluable fresh water resources.

The UIC Freshwater Lab is committed to a humanistic, social approach to water management and conservation. It explores social and human issues related to water, energy and natural resources in the Great Lakes region. It is the first such research initiative rooted in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The interrelated goals of the UIC Freshwater Lab are:

  1. Connecting communities through shared water
  2. Educating students to be leaders in the emerging “blue economy”
  3. Serving as a bridge to connect researchers, non-profit organizations and the private and public sectors in the mutual interest of innovative water policy.  

Where did you get the inspiration for Freshwater Lab’s mission?

I am from Michigan and grew up swimming in the Great Lakes. I always loved fresh water, making a point to seek out rivers when I traveled on saltwater coasts. The river that first caught my research attention is the sacred and diminished Jordan River. I spent ten years researching the Jordan for my book, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line. What started as a scholarly project led me to study peace making through water sharing and to join in the work with the NGO Ecopeace Middle East that brings together Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians.  

In 2013, I came back from the Middle East and began investigating the intersections of water and culture here. Although we have abundance and relative peace in the Great Lakes basin as opposed to scarcity and war, many of the issues are similar. They were not unfamiliar to me as a Detroiter and Chicagoan, so I initiated a space to think about fresh water in the context of the Humanities.

When it comes to analysis, communication and storytelling, the Humanities bring a lot to the movement to preserve precious water and they also bring perspectives around race, gender and class to the table. My students and I set out to make science and policy vivid and actionable for everyone who draws from shared waters.   

Rachel Havrelock lecturing students in the UIC Freshwater Lab academic program.


How did you start the Freshwater Lab?

With a Humanities Without Walls grant from the Mellon Foundation, I convened a transboundary water summit that brought people from the US and Canada together with representatives from the Jordan River Valley. It was Middle East meets Midwest. Our goals were knowledge sharing and developing “water diplomacy.”  We asked, how could the U.S. work with other countries not on national issues, but on water issues. My work in this area earned me a 2014 award from the U.S. Department of State.  

My university, the University of Illinois at Chicago, is an urban global university and the perfect place for water diplomacy that looks abroad as it understands the many borders that define contemporary cities. UIC draws from many different neighborhoods and communities, so it is an ideal place for creative thinking about water governance and management.  

What have you found most surprising since founding Freshwater Lab?

I was surprised about how little people know about their water. This is important because, unlike land or oil, water belongs to everyone who lives in a watershed as part of the commons held in public trust.

And yet few people know the source of their water or the risks to its purity. Fewer still know how water travels from the source to their homes and what their pipes are made of. These are vital questions that directly relate to our health, the value of our homes and our political agency. Everyone stands to gain from knowing who runs their water pipes — a utility, city agency or global corporation — and how cost is determined.

Helping people with such questions, along with who constitutes your watershed neighbors and who draws the cleanest water and who the most polluted, lead us to create Freshwater Stories,  a digital storytelling site to help people engage with these issues.

Although the history of water use in the so-called Rust Belt does not provide many examples, we’re on the verge of  the world’s first  economy and society. We’re sitting on the edge of the thing that will redeem and heal us, driven by water. We dwell on the edge of the substance that will redeem and heal our rusted cities.  The water belt is emerging.

We need to shift from outdated 20th ways of doing things and pioneer 21st century industry and manufacturing. One of the biggest problems is that 20th Century industries that hobbled our region are still calling the shots. Why, when agribusiness runoff causes dead zones in our lakes, does Big Ag still dictate how to grow food? Why, when shipping coal and oil introduced ravenous invasive species into the aquaculture, do polluting energy industries still have their way with our water? Why, in a season when the South flooded and West burned, would we allow a Canadian company to ravage our tributaries in order to dig for gold in the rock? Why, when our pipes add lead to some of the world’s best water, would we buy plastic bottles of the same water sold back to us by Nestle?

In the Water Belt, we will design and build water filters, water storage systems and water reuse grids and advance food and beverages that support healthy water.  People will come from everywhere to taste the water and to see the most innovative modes of water preservation. We won’t keep contributing our tax dollars to foreign companies that pollute our home, but instead support local businesses and visions.

What have you found most challenging since founding Freshwater Lab?

I feel that the scale of managing and governing and saving our shared water really is an issue for everybody in the watershed. Figuring out how to meet people where they are and get the message out widely has not been easy. Still, it has been a labor of love. I spent the summer traveling around the Great Lakes and meeting with groups in order to collect a wide range of Freshwater Stories.  

As we prepare to launch the Freshwater Stories website on November 15th, I’m excited for the message to get out well beyond the people who already care about these issues. We need a megaphone to share the message that fresh water is urgent, there are many things that threaten our life giving water and that privatizing water right could take this future away from us. Water can bring us together. We just have to figure out how to gather the tribes, groups and constituencies and think logically about our shared future.

What words of wisdom do you have for others on how they can make a difference?

Learn about your source of water, its path, what pollutes it. Also, ask what other communities draw from the same water source. Also, ask what are your pipes made of. We want Freshwater Stories to turn knowledge into action. Each of the twelve stories includes an action to be taken. Right now, turn away from bottled water, get the right filter that is needed for safe drinking water based on what you learn about your water source and its path.

The EWG Tap Water Database is a great place to start.  Learn about your water and claim what you already own. Insist day and night that water belongs to you and that it remain in public hands. Do not allow your water rights to be sold.

Are there any organizations that have been especially helpful to Freshwater Lab?

Too many to list. To name a few, the International Joint Commission, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Cities Initiatives, the Mott Foundation, Great Lakes Law, Sacred Keepers Sustainability Lab, Faith in Place, Food and Water Watch, Great Lakes Commons, Blacks in Green, FLOW (For the Love of Water), the City of Benton Harbor, Patagonia, Goose Island and Aqua Forum.


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