Welcome to the Freshwater Lab




The Freshwater Lab is an initiative to communicate Great Lakes water issues to the general public, create tools to visualize the current state and future scenarios of water sources, engage unaffiliated groups in water planning, and train a new generation of Great Lakes leaders.  As we focus on the Great Lakes basin, we also reach outward to build relationships with water stewards from other parts of the world.

NEW: Explore FreshwaterStories.com, a digital story collection created by The Freshwater Lab and our partners.


The Great Lakes are majestic bodies of fresh water that define a region spanning eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.  Another way of looking at the region is as a watershed, an area defined by rivers, streams, tributaries and rain.  Anywhere rain falls and eventually ends up in the Great Lakes is part of the Great Lakes watershed.

Everyone living in a watershed has a shared interest in keeping their water drinkable, fishable and swimmable.  Where this is not possible, then the goal is to restore water to this level.  This interest is best served by people knowing where their water comes from, what compromises it, and who profits from its distribution.  Such knowledge further supports individual stewardship and communal organization around short and long term plans for water use and conservation.

The Freshwater Lab engages students, community members, grassroots leaders, academic researchers and elected officials in partnerships and networks that tackle pressing Great Lakes issues and envision greater prosperity and stability throughout the region:

  • We promote greater awareness of the Great Lakes and the vibrant communities of the watershed and support political engagement on the local and the watershed scale.
  • We teach and learn about the social contexts of fresh water and infrastructure.  Through a Humanities lens, we study who can access fresh water and its benefits and who is exposed to contamination and toxins.
  • We explore new models for government guided by the idea of resource sovereignty – that everyone present in a watershed has a say in the management of valued resources.
  • We identify equity as the central principle in planning the infrastructure, housing, and businesses in a watershed that holds 20% of the world’s fresh water.
  • We encourage creative engagement with our fresh water future, as well as the leadership of younger generations.

The Freshwater Lab is committed to helping people adapt to the world’s changing water geography.  Rather than predicting competition or impending water wars, we promote reconciliation and stability through shared water management.  As the site of 20% of the world’s water, the Great Lakes offer residents of the basin a remarkable opportunity to transform post-industrial economies and neighborhoods into vibrant sites of 21st century innovation.

The Great Lakes are public commons, shared by all who live here, and an unparalleled source of drinking water.  The pride, memories, and traditions of Great Lakes residents are integral to protecting them.  Local knowledge about water is also vital to ensuring that water safely reaches homes and leaves businesses and farms without becoming contaminated.  Building such local knowledge brings communities together to plan for a mutually beneficial future and can help to ease historical misunderstandings.  The relative abundance of Great Lakes water presents us with remarkable opportunities to model a blue economy and water equity.

The Great Lakes basin can model water governance and social stability on the global stage.  Institutions like the Great Lakes Compact, the International Joint Commission, and the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Cities Initiative lead the way in basin-wide water governance.  The Freshwater Lab engages in “water diplomacy,” connecting Great Lakes leaders to representatives from other watersheds in order to promote understanding and best practices.

The Freshwater Lab also trains a new generation of professionals to manage and steward water systems.  Freshwater Lab students confront pressing water issues, partner with professionals to understand current programs, and engage in projects that propose solutions and envision water futures.


The Freshwater Lab is an initiative focused on the social contexts of fresh water.  Interested in the many ways people interact with water as individuals and groups, the Freshwater Lab offers university courses, creates teaching materials, sponsors research, communicates pressing water issues to the broader public, and convenes summits to promote equitable water governance.

Dr. Rachel Havrelock founded the Freshwater Lab in 2014 after returning from research in the Middle East where she was inspired by the Ecopeace “Good Water Neighbors” program that links communities along shared watersheds.  Curious if a similar program might enhance human life and ecosystem health in the Great Lakes basin, Dr. Havrelock launched the Freshwater Lab with grants from the Humanities Without Walls Consortium.  Support from the Mott Foundation, the McDougal Family Foundation, and UIC Alumni has enabled programs and partnerships on the UIC campus and across the Great Lakes region.  




(312) 996-6352


The Freshwater Lab

UIC Institute for the Humanities

701 S Morgan St

Chicago, IL 60607