Chicago — Jack Sheaffer likes to drive by the vacant lots, dilapidated buildings, and debris of West Madison Street in Chicago. There he sees a vision of hydroponic gardens and bustling industry, fed by the wastes of a great city.
''You've got to get all the loops,'' Mr. Sheaffer says. ''If you don't have all the loops, the city gets weaker and weaker. For 50 or 100 years, we've been draining our cities of resources.''
He's not talking about traffic ''loops'' in this case, but the streams of circular water systems he's designed, streams that he says solve ''the water crisis'' while enriching soil and powering business.
Sheaffer sees this approach as a small-scale, even private sector, way of rebuilding much of the country's infrastructure.
Outside of Chicago, in suburban Du Page County, he's proved the idea works. Visitors come from around the world to view his waste-treatment system at the 274-acre Hamilton Lakes complex in Itasca.
The community, with lots of green grass and foliage, is self-sufficient in water, returning its storm and waste water into the ground to replenish natural aquifers.
The Hamilton project was Sheaffer's answer to critics who said he could not repeat the success of a water system he built in 1973 in Muskegon, Mich., a city with high energy costs.
Now Sheaffer, a formy Army science adviser who helped design the original US Clean Water Act, is getting more chances to prove his ideas.
Construction will soon start on a federally funded circular system in Vineland, N.J., and plans are in place for another circular system at a high-tech center in Colorado.
If successful, the $24 million Vineland project will take the waste water of 50,000 people and return it to the soil.
In the process, the system will produce fuel and fertilize cornfields to offset costs.
''I think right now we're at the crossroads,'' says Sheaffer, who has spent more than a decade fighting traditional concepts of water treatment. ''We have the opportunity to do things right or go back to the old days.''
Here's how a circular system works: Water is drawn from natural shallow-aquifer wells replenished by rain and, after use, goes through a series of lakes where it is aerated and treated.
Then it is used for irrigation, finally filtering through the ground to recharge the aquifers.
There is no apparent discharge of polluted water into river systems, and no need to depend on costly pipelines.
The systems are designed to use storm water and eliminate flooding as well.
But many water engineers are not convinced of the concept's practicality. ''When you look at the flow designs, they make sense,'' says Allan Poole, water director of Naperville, a fast-growing city in Du Page County. ''But when you consider running it day-in and day-out, and the possibilities of ground-water contamination, you wonder.''
Mr. Poole and Sheaffer were on opposite sides of a controversy over piping lake water to Chicago's far western suburbs. Sheaffer claimed it wasn't necessary; Poole and officials of more than 20 suburbs said ground water was not sufficient to cover future growth.
At Hamilton Lakes, the Trammell Crow Corporation could not build a traditional water system because of restrictions on the local treatment plant. Trammell Crow called in Sheaffer, and spokesmen say the company is happy with the results. However, company officials add that as they build more structures on the land they may switch to a conventional system.
Sheaffer claims he can increase the system's capacity, and that other companies or communities can utilize golf course and park space for similar systems.
Airports are also potential water resources, Sheaffer says. He has drawn up plans to use an airport west of Chicago as the focus of a circular water system.
If the plan is approved, waste water will be pumped into lagoons and thence between runways to irrigate land, raising corn that he says could be processed into airplane fuel.
New technology developed in the Chicago area will make circular systems more cost-effective for such projects, Sheaffer claims.
A process called Photozone, now being used by missionaries in third-world countries, treats water without chlorine, using ultraviolet light.
Initial tests indicate it could provide low-cost treatment for water in the initial stage of Sheaffer's ''loop.''
''I always try to work on things from the standpoint of an overall philosophy ,'' said the former University of Chicago researcher, who last year cowrote a book called ''Future Water.''
He adds, ''I see wastes as resources.''
Shaeffer's ideas range from designs for an ''environmental'' house he plans to build for his family to thoughts about how to keep the proposed 1992 Chicago World's Fair watered and clean.
And while he prefers commuting by train, when he does drive a car downtown, he likes to drive along West Madison Street and dream.