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Protecting Our Great Lakes

The heart of an international region home to more than 50 million people is water. Beyond providing the basic necessity for life, the Great Lakes have shaped the geology, climate, economy, culture, and people of their surrounding region, and they are more than a point of pride for those residents. Plainly visible from outer space and an enduring reminder of the last Ice Age, the Great Lakes are the largest surface source of freshwater in the world.

But the Great Lakes are more than just five bodies of water: they’re the land and wildlife that surround the lakes, as well as the people and communities that depend on them. They provide drinking water to 10% of Americans, they support economies, transportation, and agriculture, and they have been declared a national treasure by Congress. These are our Great Lakes, they belong to everyone, and they are vital.

Updated: Congress has passed a budget that fully funds the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Learn more…


 

Understanding the Value of our Lakes

Each of us has our own impression of the Great Lakes, yet uniting those views is a common appreciation for these natural treasures.

The Great Lakes shelter more than 90,000 square miles of aquatic habitats, and they are surrounded by more than 200,000 square miles of terrain ranging from cities and towns to wetlands, forests, and farmland. The networks of parks, open spaces, beaches, and conservation areas offer home to hundreds of wildlife species, as well as numerous opportunities for people to experience the lakes. Restoring the natural landscapes of the region, such as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Illinois Beach State Park, offers a home to many species of concern while providing unparalleled opportunities for visitors to experience the region’s nature. Even small green spaces like Chicago’s Montrose Point can provide a natural retreat for both people and wildlife.

But the lakes are also the economic engine of the Midwest. They offer routes of transportation which support the regional economy, they provide clean drinking water, they support recreation and tourism, and they sustain the region’s agriculture. Over 1.5 million jobs are tied to the Great Lakes providing $60 million in wages. Outdoor recreation opportunities, such as paddling, fishing, wildlife viewing, and miles of trails, contribute billions to the US economy – recreational fishing alone accounts for over $4 billion.


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Openlands assisted with the Illinois Coastal Management Program.

Collaborating on Restoration

It is not without substantial collaboration that the Great Lakes can endure as a natural and national treasure. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, signed in 1972, was a major international step towards protection and conservation. The Great Lakes Compact signed in 2008 took another stride to preserving the water quality and ecological health of the region.

In 2010, the US Federal Government launched the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), the most comprehensive proposal to protect and restore the lakes to date. The GLRI aims to limit toxic pollution, such as mercury and PCBs, from entering drinking water sources and habitat for wildlife. It focuses on reducing runoff from developed areas and industrial sites while restoring the natural landscapes that surround the lakes, and the initiative aims to prevent invasive plant and animal species from threatening the region’s biodiversity. With support from the GLRI, Openlands has planted over 2,500 trees in the Chicago area over the last four years.

To date the GLRI has invested $2.2 billion in restoration projects, and a Brookings Institution study found that every dollar invested in Great Lakes restoration yields a two dollar return. Ten federal agencies have coordinated efforts for the GLRI including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Agriculture. Taken together, this level of coordination demonstrates not just the breadth of areas impacted by the lakes, but also the level of commitment required to preserve the Great Lakes.


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Lake Michigan

For more than 50 years, Openlands has been an advocate of the Great Lakes and we have led many regional initiatives to advance Great Lakes restoration. We assisted in the establishment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (1965) and played a critical role in dedicating the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor (1984). Openlands provided leadership to the Steering Committee of Millennium Reserve and has helped implement numerous regional plans for Lake Michigan. Additionally, the Lake Michigan Federation (now Alliance for the Great Lakes) and Friends of the Chicago River were both founded as projects of Openlands.

Our commitment to the Great Lakes extends to our on-the-ground efforts to improve the health of Lake Michigan. We have restored the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, a mile of lakefront natural areas and unique ecosystems in Highland Park which feeds into to the Lake Michigan watershed. Our urban forestry and regional planning programs, such as Space to Grow, look to control stormwater pollution to Lake Michigan and better manage Chicago’s water resources. Yet people are the core of Openlands, so we ensure access to an open lakefront, and facilitate ways to connect students to the lake through Eco-Explorations and Birds in my Neighborhood®.


These are our Great Lakes, and they ask no less than a full commitment to their protection. Whether at Indiana Dunes, Montrose Point, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, or any of the 10,500 miles of Great Lakes coastline, connections to nature inspire greater appreciation for our natural treasures. Openlands will continue to protect and restore the Great Lakes, and ensure they continue to belong to everyone.

A Refuge in the Wild

It will come as no surprise that residents of the Chicago region all too often experience nature in fragments – at their local park, in a community garden, with a migrating sandhill crane passing overhead. But when we have space to run wild, and when nature has room to demonstrate a mighty vastness, it only takes a few moments before it speaks to us in a primeval and wordless language.

On the doorstep of Chicago, we have such a place in Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The 11,500 acres of Hackmatack will soon offer the chance to explore and appreciate nature’s majesty on a whole new level. Here, we’ll be able to share our favorite activities with our families, kids will learn about and understand the value of nature, and this will be a place we can all fill with memories which will endure for lifetimes. All of this will be possible because this land is public, it belongs to all of us.

Updated: Congress has passed a budget that significantly increases support for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Learn more.


“I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Wide Open Spaces

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System, which has since grown into a system of over 560 conservation sites, today encompassing more than 150,000,000 acres of public land. The primary goal of the Refuge System is to protect and enhance habitat for wildlife, while providing public benefit, such as educational resources, recreation opportunities, and support for local economies.

Hackmatack, formally established in 2012, is the first such refuge within 100 miles of Chicago, making it accessible to the 12 million people who live within an hour’s drive of the refuge. As an urban wildlife refuge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service aims to offer access and resources to America’s increasingly diverse population.

Outdoor recreation is estimated to contribute $646 billion to the U.S. economy every year, and the refuge is at the heart of that opportunity. In Hackmatack and its adjoining areas, runners and hikers will be able to explore miles of trails winding through sun-dappled burr oak savannas and prairies teeming with wildflowers. Cyclists can pause beneath its massive skies as they travel along the Grand Illinois Trail. Birders will be able to comb native grasslands for Dickcissels or restored wetlands for migrating Whooping Cranes. Fishermen and sportsmen can wade through some of the highest-quality headwater streams in the region. Kayakers and paddle boarders can slip slowly down the Nippersink Creek as it meanders through open fields, lush woodlands, and verdant flowerbeds. And photographers will be able to capture a unique landscape of glacier-carved ridges adorned with valleys of wildflowers and pierced with pristine streams, all lingering from the last Ice Age.

Public access to open space is the guiding vision for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, but the designation in 2012 was just the start of a long journey to build the refuge. We are currently restoring the first acres of Hackmatack, but public-private partnerships and local enthusiasm driving the vision forward.


Forging Partnerships

In March 2012, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its environmental assessment for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The assessment recommended a version of the refuge that would link existing state, county, and federal conservation lands with newly acquired land and conservation corridors.

After gaining support from the public, the congressional delegations of both Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as from their respective governors, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar formally declared protected status for the refuge in August 2012.

Today, Openlands and our partners are in the process of developing four core areas in Illinois and Wisconsin that link existing conservation sites and create the necessary scale needed for wildlife to thrive, which translates to thousands of acres of protected wetlands and havens for recovering wildlife populations. While restoration work is concentrated in these cores, we are also working with private partners to link the cores via migratory corridors.

While Openlands is able to acquire new parcels from willing sellers andhelp restore them to be a part of Hackmatack, federal support for the refuge is critical. Federal land protection ensures that important resources are forever available to America’s future generations. It secures drinking water supplies, provides wildlife habitat, creates recreation opportunities, and maintains ecosystems that support agriculture, tourism, and other economic activity. These areas will be protected from pollution and continue supplying clean water to agriculture. These considerations drove the locals’ decision to seek federal protection as a national wildlife refuge.

This is a new approach to conservation and a new way to protect open space on the scale we need for wildlife to thrive. We have to tackle the challenge with our partners acre-by-acre, parcel-by-parcel to protect these places so everyone can share places like Hackmatack.


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The open spaces of the American landscape have always been part of our national identity. Hackmatack is a dream built from the bottom up, drawing together the skills and talents of conservation non-profits, local business owners, sportsmen, and private citizens.

Foresight and planning for the Chicago Wilderness Region established many different and superb ways for people to be connected with and inspired by nature. Whether at the local park or forest preserve, or at vast open spaces like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, connections to nature are vital to all people. Chicago is the third largest metropolitan region in the country, but we lack equal access to America’s public lands. Cutting support of the National Wildlife Refuges will rob us of our right to enjoy America’s public lands.

The Waterway That Made Chicago

Please note: the following was written by Openlands President and CEO, Jerry Adelmann, who coordinated Openlands’ efforts to establish the nation’s first National Heritage Area along the route of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal.


Throughout the 20th Century, the Chicago metropolitan region repeatedly distinguished itself as an innovator in the fields of urban planning and open space preservation. The 1909 Plan of Chicago and the subsequent creation of the Forest Preserves of Cook County are both acknowledged as global models of open space planning.

One of these trail-blazing efforts, which Openlands led, was the creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in 1984—America’s first Congressionally-designated National Heritage Area (NHA) and the prototype for 48 additional heritage areas that have followed. NHAs tell stories about America’s past, while offering a place to enjoy nature through sightseeing and recreation. However,this innovative and wildly popular program is at risk.

In both 2017 and 2018, the White House attempted to eliminate all Federal support for the National Heritage Areas. Congress offers less than $1 million to local partners who maintain NHAs and ensure they are publicly accessible. Each federal $1 is leveraged by $4-6 in local funds. Luckily, due to sustained advocacy campaigns from organizations like Openlands, those funding cuts were beaten back both times.

NHAs are important to Illinois and one in particular, the I&M Canal Corridor, is important to me.

Photo: Canal Corridor Association (Canal Tourism Boat at LaSalle-Peru)

I&M Canal in Harpers Weekly 1871
I&M Canal at Bridgeport in Chicago as depicted in Harper’s Weekly, 1871

The Illinois and Michigan Canal: The Waterway that Made Chicago

One cannot overestimate the seminal role the Illinois and Michigan Canal (I&M Canal) played in the founding and early history of Chicago.  This pioneering waterway connected Lake Michigan at Chicago with the Illinois River 100 miles to the southwest at LaSalle-Peru.  First envisioned by the French explorers Pere Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673, the hand-dug waterway provided a critical connecting link between the Atlantic seaboard, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. When the I&M Canal was completed it 1848, it positioned Chicago as a gateway to the West, and as America’s most important inland port and transportation hub.

Newer waterways were established paralleling the I&M, and this historic canal was finally closed for commercial use in 1933.  During the years preceding World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transformed the canal into a park of great natural beauty and unparalleled recreational opportunities in northeastern Illinois.  Miles of towpath were converted into hiking and bicycling trails; sections of the canal, its locks, and other related structures were rehabilitated; picnic areas and shelters were constructed along the canal’s banks; and state and local parks were developed on adjacent lands.

After the CCC was dissolved, however, most of the extensive improvements accomplished by this highly successful and popular project fell into disrepair.  In the late 1950s, the easternmost section of the canal was used for the construction of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) and the State of Illinois was preparing to sell off the extension real estate holdings along the canal’s route for private development. As local interest groups along the canal looked to preserve their region’s cultural and ecological legacy, they turned to a newly-formed not-for-profit called Openlands


Operation Green-Strip

Operation Green-Strip

Openlands, one of the first conservation organizations in the U.S. to work in a metropolitan area, organized local leaders and grassroots advocates to launch a preservation campaign called “Operation Green-Strip.” These efforts culminated in 1974 with the establishment of the 60-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail.

Sections of the canal north of Joliet were excluded as they were fragmented with development that precluded a traditional linear park, yet many of these northern communities were some of the greatest supporters for preservation.  Advocates kept coming back to Openlands asking for assistance to protect sections of the canal, important remnant natural areas, archeological sites, and other significant open space and cultural assets along the lower DesPlaines River Valley.

It is in the late 1970s when I entered the scene. A sixth-generation resident of Lockport, I realized that the future of the former canal headquarters was very much tied to a broader regional strategy along the route of the I&M. Collectively the resources of the historic canal towns and adjacent landscapes represented a rich chapter in the history of Illinois and the nation and, if coordinated, could serve as a catalyst to help revitalize this classic rustbelt corridor that was experiencing some of the greatest unemployment in the nation.

Working on a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, I became involved in volunteer projects to save some of Lockport’s historic buildings and unique natural areas, including the ecologically-rare Lockport Prairie. The Forest Preserve District of Will County suggested I contact Openlands with my ideas for a regional landscape-scale approach that would include recreational trails, revitalized waterfronts and historic downtowns, and protected natural and cultural treasures throughout the five-county region.

Openlands embraced the concept and provided critical leadership to move this concept towards reality. The Canal Corridor Association was established in 1982 as an independent not-for-profit, and in 1984 President Reagan came to Chicago to sign legislation that created the nation’s first heritage area, launching a national movement.


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President Reagan signing the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor legislation at the Hilton Chicago, August 24, 1984.

Enshrining our national heritage

National Heritage Areas combine ecological, cultural, and economic goals, and take a holistic approach to living, working landscapes. The overarching goal is to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors alike. They are “partnership parks” that leverage public and private resources, as well as civic leadership.

The role of the Federal Government is quite limited, but nevertheless crucial: federal designation elevates the significance of these areas as well as the social and cultural histories they represent. Modest funding and technical assistance over the years has supported region-wide coordination with wayfinding and interpretation. Hundreds of millions of private and public dollars have been reinvested in the I&M Canal region since its designation. Tourism and community economic development projects have added countless new jobs to these historic communities.

Positive outcomes like this are seen in the other heritage areas across the nation where modest federal support leverages reinvestment while addressing much need recreational needs and underrepresented stories in the American experience.

The I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor and future NHAs, such as two proposed NHAs in the Chicago region, the Calumet National Heritage Area and the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area, deserve full support from the Federal government.

Since its founding in 1963, Openlands has played a leadership role in most of our region’s innovative open space initiatives, including the creation of the nation’s first rail-to-trail conversion (the Illinois Prairie Path), the nation’s first national tallgrass prairie, and the first national wildlife refuge in the greater Milwaukee-Chicago area.

We will continue to support these projects, ensure their value is understood at every level, and most of all, defend the public’s right to access and enjoy them.


Updated: Congress has passed a budget that increases support for the National Heritage Areas. Learn more…

Have You Discovered Wolf Lake?

Sitting just over 15 miles from the heart of the Loop and straddling the Illinois-Indiana border, Wolf Lake is part of a network of recreation areas on Chicago’s south side. Over the years, Openlands has worked to expand the area’s trail system, which connects communities such as Hegewisch, South Deering and Whiting, and we encourage you to discover Wolf Lake for yourself!

The origin of the lake’s name is unknown, but local residents have offered a few theories: some believe that “Wolf” was a Native American chief while others contend that years ago the surrounding area was teeming with wolves. Neither of these claims have been verified, but they still offer an interesting look into the lake’s history.

Wolf Lake also lies in the heart of the Calumet region, a natural area of over 15,000 acres of river systems, parks, trails, rare dune and swale, and savanna. Openlands has focused on empowering community groups and local governments to care for the region’s natural resources. As we promote a regional culture of conservation, Openlands has helped to develop an interconnected network of protected greenways and trails and to restore public access to the region’s natural treasures.

The area around Wolf Lake is home to numerous open spaces, recreational opportunities, and cultural institutions, including two sites managed by the National Park Service. The area is easy to reach no matter where you’re coming from, and there is plenty to enjoy for an entire weekend.

The Essential Role of Pollinators

Pollinator species – such as bees, butterflies, bats, and birds – may be small, but they play massive roles in our lives every day. From assisting in food production to providing ecological services, pollinators are central to many critical processes in the environment. Increased threats posed by habitat loss, disease, and climate change have contributed to the global decline of many pollinator species and made pollinator conservation all the more important.

Nearly all the plants in the world need to be pollinated in order to reproduce effectively, and pollinators assist in this among over 80% of the world’s flowering plants. These plants, in turn, sequester and store carbon by absorbing CO2, the second most abundant greenhouse gas. They improve air quality and can help filter clean water. The United States grows more than 100 crops that rely on or benefit from pollinators, which contribute an estimated $3 billion to the economy.


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In many cases, pollinators serve as keystone species, meaning they play an essential role in the foundations of an ecosystem. For instance, bumble bees pollinate fruit-bearing plants which not only support agriculture, but also provide the diet to numerous other species in a given ecosystem.

Despite their vital role, pollinators need conservation support. Climate change has imperiled half of all North American bird species and pollinator habitats are becoming fragmented or disappearing rapidly in the face of development. Excessive or careless use of pesticides can wipe out whole communities of pollinators.

Individual populations are at risk as well. North American populations of the monarch butterfly and the rusty patched bumble bee, for example, have experienced significant declines over the last 20 years, prompting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to consider additional protection for these once-abundant species under the Endangered Species Act.

In Illinois alone, there are nearly 2,500 native pollinator species that support our flowering and food plant populations. Illinois also serves as an important migratory route for monarchs and other pollinators that need appropriate habitat to help them survive and reproduce as they travel.


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Openlands and ComEd recognize the importance of the many programs, partnerships, and individual actions that residents of Illinois are taking to conserve pollinators, support their habitat, and protect pollinator-dependent plants and food crops. As a response to this growing awareness, ComEd has announced a special focus on pollinator conservation for the 2018 cycle of the ComEd Green Region grants.

Grants of up to $10,000 support open space projects that focus on planning, acquisition, and improvements to local parks, natural areas, and recreation resources. Grant recipients can use Green Region grants in combination with other funding sources to cover a portion of the expenses associated with developing and/or supporting their open space programs.

Across our region, pollinator-friendly projects incorporate habitat in public spaces, from new outdoor classrooms to natural area restoration to community gardens. ComEd’s commitment is helping communities recognize how everyone can play a role in protecting pollinators.


For more information on the grants program, please visit www.openlands.org/greenregion.

Photo (top): Brandon Hayes

Openlands Protects Important Bird Areas Near Chicago

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty between the United States and Canada. In 1916, this landmark agreement made it illegal to hunt, capture, kill, sell, or even pursue migratory birds. (See the original 1916 treaty here: Convention between the United States and Great Britain for the Protection of Migratory Birds.)

To celebrate this treaty, Openlands wants to make Chicagoans aware of Important Bird Areas nearby. Important Bird Areas or IBA’s are internationally recognized places that are chosen for their unique role in providing habitat for birds. These habitats play a vital part in the lives of birds who are endangered or threatened, either by providing breeding grounds, pathways for migration, or places to spend the winter.

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White-faced Ibis at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland

Through environmental policy and advocacy, habitat protection, and land acquisition and restoration programs, Openlands has positively impacted IBA’s around Chicago. Just south of the city, we’ve helped to establish natural areas like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and save places like Goose Lake Prairie State Park. We’ve restored vital wetlands and other habitats at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland and Illinois Beach State Park, and have used our policy wing to advocate for several additional sites. We fought for the Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance that keeps our lakefront protected for migrating birds along the Mississippi Flyway.

Here is a list of Important Bird Areas Openlands has helped to protect:

Notably, Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County have worked together since 2001 to expand over 900 acres of continuous grassland habitat at Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland in southern Cook County. Bartel Grassland was an existing IBA on its own, but in September 2015, Audubon Chicago Region approved adding the Tinley Creek Wetlands restoration areas to Bartel. This more than doubled the overall acreage for this Important Bird Area.

In the end, Openlands wants to make sure these special places are accessible to people from all walks of life. Through our Birds in My Neighborhood Program, we are able to engage Chicago Public School students with nearby nature areas. The program has taken educational visits to Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland, introducing these children to a rare and unique world of nature and experiences they will never forget.

We hope you venture out and find an Important Bird Area near you!

Protecting Chicago’s Second Shoreline

A wildlife biologist peers down at the Chicago River from the Washington Street Bridge. River otters are fastidiously building cones out of the remains of their breakfast on a ledge behind the Civic Opera House. Once completely gone from Illinois, the otters – along with over 70 kinds of fish, black crowned night herons, bald eagles, and scores of other wildlife – have returned to Chicago’s rivers. They share the waters at dawn with high school crew teams who clip along the surface.

Chicagoans have come a long way over the last forty years in how we see and value our second shoreline. Once considered open sewers, the Chicago and Calumet rivers have become vibrant natural attractions that are economic drivers and community assets. Offices and homes are now facing the river again, and the number of docks and boat launches is rising.


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Managing stormwater to help our rivers

One solution is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s (MWRD) “Deep Tunnel” and reservoir project, which captures billions of gallons of rain. When storms overwhelm MWRD’s treatment plants, it has to flush the overflow of rainwater and sewage into our rivers and Lake Michigan. The 30-foot tunnels and giant reservoirs hold massive amounts of polluted stormwater until MWRD can treat it all. The quality of our rivers has also improved as MWRD has upgraded the technology at its treatment plants.

MWRD is also partnering with Openlands and other organizations to help communities capture rain where it falls. Through the Space to Grow program, Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign are working with MWRD, Chicago Public Schools, and the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management to transform underutilized schoolyards into lush gardens and safe playgrounds for students, families, and community members. Because of these new amenities, we have fewer basement backups, less stormwater flowing into our sewers, reduced flooding, and ultimately less pollution discharged into our waters. The program is gaining national recognition as a model for other cities to leverage public and private partnerships for a multitude of community benefits.


Big Marsh Open Space Reserve

Strengthening regulations

The State and Federal EPA are recognizing our progress in reclaiming the Chicago and Calumet rivers and are requiring stronger protections for people and wildlife that are on and in the water. Since so many people are enjoying our waterways, the Illinois Pollution Control Board (Board) has adopted regulations that require the MWRD to disinfect over 600 million gallons of sewage that it discharges each day from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. Earlier this month, the Board took another giant step towards passing comparable regulations to protect the resurgence of fish and other wildlife by requiring power plants and other industrial users to remove more heat and pollution from its cooling water before returning it to our rivers. Openlands and our colleagues continue to advocate for the Board and the United States EPA to hold strong on these improvements so that our rivers can reach their potential.


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The work continues

This growing consciousness has sparked new plans for the future. The Calumet Stormwater Initiative is leveraging the vision and resources of Chicago’s south side communities to attract millions of dollars in public and private funding for a host of stormwater projects. As a result of ongoing collaboration between government agencies and non-profit organizations, the region is a strong candidate for up to $500 million in federal assistance to help communities become more resilient to the effects of flooding and climate change.

We still face challenges ahead. Openlands and our partners are already challenging requests by industry for permission to sidestep the new water quality standards. We are preparing for upcoming Board proceedings that will determine how much industry can continue to pollute our rivers with road salt, ammonia and other chemicals that are toxic to rebounding wildlife. In addition, Openlands has intervened in a proceeding where the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to continue to allow the MWRD to use Lake Michigan Water to flush out our rivers.

Overall, we are seeing progress. At Openlands, we will continue to press for revitalizing our waterways and better connect the people of our region with these natural treasures.