Clean Water

Protecting clean water in Illinois is essential to community, economic and ecosystem health.

Illinois has abundant water resources: there are over 119,000 miles of streams within Illinois’ borders; 900 miles of large rivers form our western, eastern, and southern borders; there are more than 91,000 freshwater lakes and ponds in Illinois; and, Illinois has jurisdiction over more than 1,500 square miles of open water in Lake Michigan.

With such an abundance of resources it is easy to take our clean water for granted, making it all the more important that we remember the availability and quality of our water resources is of great importance at the state, regional, and national levels. Water does not respect political boundaries — our watersheds overlap with watersheds in other regions, and our groundwater and surface waters are interdependent with the waters of other states.


The Great Lakes is the largest freshwater ecosystem on Earth



Illinois's water resources face many infrastructure challenges

Nutrient Loss

nutrient pollution

Nitrogen & phosphorus pollution degrade our water

Drinking Water

drinking water

Lead in drinking water threatens many IL communities

Threats To Our Water

Unfortunately, surface and groundwater resources in Illinois are being impaired or degraded. Many Illinois rivers, streams, and lakes are contaminated with E. coli bacteria; contain fish that have been exposed to mercury and PCBs; exhibit low oxygen levels; and contain excessive phosphorus, manganese, siltation, suspended solids, and algae, all of which negatively impact aquatic life.
Furthermore, much of our groundwater is contaminated with pesticides, halogenated solvents, petroleum, nitrate, fluoride, salt, metals, radio-nuclides, bacteria, protozoa, and viruses.

Various practices contribute to the impairment of our water resources. For example, untreated urban runoff contains pollutants such as: sediment; oil, grease, and toxics from vehicles; pesticides; viruses, bacteria, and nutrients from pet waste and septic systems; road salts; and heavy metals. Nutrient pollution is another crisis in Illinois and occurs when the highly soluble nitrates and phosphates commonly used in fertilizers and industry pass into water systems when it rains. Nutrient pollution causes “algae blooms,” which block sunlight (water plants die) and deplete the oxygen levels in water (kills aquatic animals). Moreover, Illinois is the number one contributor of nitrogen and phosphorous to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Coal mining ash ponds, wastewater runoff, and coal slurry also result in the leaching of chemicals into water systems. One of the most regrettable effects of these practices is the negative impact they’ve had on the Great Lakes basin, which contains a wealth of threatened biological diversity.
Meeting today‘s water needs sustainably requires us to continually address the implications of our water resources decisions on larger ecosystems and future generations. Consequently, Illinois laws, policy, and regulations regarding water resources must empower affected citizens to enforce the law, must ensure that regulatory agencies have robust and aggressive inspection and enforcement programs and policies with meaningful consequences for illegal polluters, and must increase public access and availability of pollution and permitting data.

Current Clean Water Laws

Existing clean water laws should be fully implemented, enforced and adequate public access to decision making processes should be provided. Several changes to Illinois laws, policy and regulations regarding water resources are required to increase the ability of affected citizens to enforce the law, to ensure that regulatory agencies have robust and aggressive inspection and enforcement programs and policies with meaningful consequences for illegal polluters, and to increase public access and availability of pollution and permitting data.

The primary federal law governing water pollution, with the objective of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters by preventing pollution, providing for the improvement of wastewater treatment, and maintaining the integrity of wetlands. Under the CWA, states have the “primary responsibilities and rights” to achieve the Act’s objectives.

With regards to point sources of water pollution discharges, the EPA determines discharge levels, issues and enforces permits, oversees a state’s program administration, and will take over if it determines that the state is underperforming.

The EPA establishes criteria for water quality, which is presumptively binding on states, each of which may establish designated water uses as long as the use doesn’t interfere with the attainment of downstream water quality.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a federal program designed to receive a small percentage of offshore oil and gas fee revenues to protect our nation’s important lands and waters. The program is authorized to receive up to $900 million per year, but despite a growing energy economy, funding for land and water protection has been low and these promised funds have been diverted elsewhere. Since its creation, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has provided approximately $213 million dollars to Illinois for the protection of places such as Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge.

Passed in 2010, this Illinois law prohibits landscapers from applying fertilizer containing phosphorus to a lawn, except where the soil is lacking in phosphorus when compared against a standard established by the University of Illinois.

The law also restricts the ability of a landscaper to apply fertilizer on impervious surfaces, near bodies of water (3 to 15 feet), or when a lawn is frozen or saturated. The law exempts agriculture, commercial or sod farms, gardening, and golf courses.

Section 52.5 of the Illinois Environmental Protection Act prohibits the production, manufacture, distribution and sale in Illinois of any personal care product containing plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size. When consumers use personal care products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste containing microbeads, the beads are rinsed down the drain and into our sewer systems. Because of their small size and buoyancy, microbeads escape treatment by sewage plants and are discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans. These microbeads then absorb toxic chemicals which can be eaten by fish and wildlife.

Clean Water Updates

2024 Legislative Report

IEC's state legislative team has published our 2024 Legislative Report detailing environmental wins and setbacks during this year's legislative session.


Plastic Pollution in Chicago

Over the past few years, Illinois has seen plastic waste reduction legislative victories in Springfield. Advocates in its largest city, Chicago, seek to implement similar...


Protecting Chicago’s Wetlands

Wetlands--home to a dazzling array of plants and animals--stand between us and some of the worst effects of climate change. Advocates in Chicago urge decision-makers...