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WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE? In Chicago, 20 Years from Now - Perhaps Not!


We in Chicago and the Suburbs take the availability of water for granted - perhaps even more so than those living in other parts of the U.S.  After all, we are astride Lake Michigan, and one of the largest - and pure-tasting - sources of fresh water anywhere in the world.

But there is a potential lurking problem!

The Chicago Area is reaching its limit on the amount of water it can draw from the lake, while deep, water-producing aquifers, far underground, are not being replenished as quickly as in recent years.  These deep aquifers serve many of the far-away Chicago suburbs, not served by Lake Michigan water.

This combination of factors could reduce the availability of available water 15 to 20 years from now, or perhaps sooner.   It has prompted local and state officials scrambling for ways to conserve our fresh water supply, and ways to conserve water usage in the future.

"In the 20th Century, the emphasis was to ramp up the supply of water—dig more wells and build more dams, but the emphasis is shifting in the 21st Century away from finding new supply sources to better management of the supplies we have," according to Tim Loftus, Project Director for the 33-member Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Supply Planning Group, representing government, business and environmental groups.

Loftus insists that Northeastern Illinois does not have a water supply problem, but, rather, a water management problem.

"People may think as long as water is running out of the tap there is plenty. But we have been mining water and we need to [plan] now rather than address this on a crisis basis, " says Paul Schuch, Director of Water Resources for fast-growing Kane County, west of the City of Chicago.

Seattle WA has already begun tackling the water conservation issue head on.  Despite a growing population in the Seattle Metro Area, consumption and water costs have been stabilized, says Mary Ann Dickinson, of the Alliance for Water Efficiency in Chicago.

"Most people don't think they waste water" but at the same time they are not eager for higher utility costs or added taxes, said Al Dietemann, Acting Resource Conservation Manager of the Seattle Public Utilities. Businesses and consumers respond when "the public is aware they can keep water bills down with more efficient water use," he said.

By 2007, the Seattle-area Saving Water Partnership, an 18-member utility consortium in Seattle and greater King County, reported the total billed water consumption had dropped 23 percent since 1990 and 13 percent since 2000.

The drop was the result of a public education program and through incentives to use more water-saving fixtures and equipment.

Loftus said certain conservation measures—rebates to encourage installation of ultra-low flow toilets, more water-efficient washing machines and sprinkling systems could be among the measures his planning group will suggest in its report due next summer.

In addition to regional planning, Illinois eventually will have to come up with a state water conservation plan. It is one of eight states that has approved the Great Lakes Compact, an effort to protect and restrict access to water in the five Great Lakes. Michigan, the last state bordering the Great Lakes to approve the agreement, signed earlier this month.

The Compact must be approved by Congress before it becomes law. Two Canadian provinces, Quebec and Ontario, have adopted nearly identical laws.

If the act goes forward, it "requires the state to pass a conservation plan with specific conservation goals and implementation steps," noted Joyce O'Keefe, Deputy Director of Openlands.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates at least 36 states are anticipating shortages by 2013 even under non-drought conditions.  Even water rich Northeastern Illinois face a possible water supply crunch.

More than 3/4 of those in the Chicago Metro Area get their water from Lake Michigan.  But the state is approaching the allowable limit for withdrawal set by a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decree, amended in 1985.  This decree was a result of Chicago's reversal of the Chicago River, one hundred years ago.

At the same time, there are signs the deep aquifers that have supplied fresh water to about 20 percent of our area's distant suburbs, and are not replenishing as quickly as they have in the past.

A 2006 Water Study conducted by Mc Henry County estimated the county's underground aquifers can produce 120 million gallons of water a day, more than enough to supply the 34.6 million gallons a day drawn in 2000 and meet an anticipated need of 67.5 million gallons a day projected for 2030.

However, future usage in Mc Henry County could reach 164 million gallons a day if all communities in the county achieve their master plans.  That's far more water than will be available.

For more info, read Sharon Stangenes' article in the July 13th edition of The Chicago Tribune.


Posted: Saturday, July 19, 2008 4:59 PM by Dean's Team


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