State of Our Water


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A Three Part Series on the State of our Water

The Daily Herald

Part I:  The oil of the 21st century

Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted Sunday, September 03, 2006

Suburban sprawl spurs traffic jams, but new roads eventually relieve bottlenecks.

New homes bring more kids to crowd classrooms, but new schools ease the squeeze.

As bulldozers continue to stretch the suburbs, however, another predicament grows, unseen yet inevitable.

By the time today's toddlers graduate from college, among their top concerns will be a scarcity of a simple yet almost irreplaceable commodity.


People today often take water for granted, whether swimming in a lake, filling a glass at the faucet, or gazing at a small waterfall like this one at the entrance to this Elgin neighborhood.

Water down below

Globally, the United Nations says more than half the world will be living with water shortages within 50 years.

Nationally, the issue is so serious a congressional panel issued a 2003 report on scarcity entitled, "Water: Is it the 'Oil' of the 21st Century?"

Locally, the suburbs will not be immune.

Experts in environment, planning and geology all say swaths of suburbs in Kane, Lake and McHenry counties could face serious water shortages in the next 20 years.

The number of people will rise, but the water available will remain the same - putting a squeeze on supplies.

Outlying towns will feel the brunt of the problem first. Unable to draw water from Lake Michigan, they instead must tap into underground pools called aquifers.

Sand and gravel make up some aquifers and lie no more than 100 feet below ground. Some aquifers form in layers of bedrock, up to 1,200 feet down.

Nature alone refills these aquifers. Rain falls and the ground absorbs the water, which trickles down into sand or rock.

Towns sink wells into these pools and pump the water up.

A century ago, when the first wells poked area aquifers, no pump was needed. When first tapped, aquifers would spew water 30 feet into the air.

"Now after a century of use, that water level is 600 to 700 feet below land's surface," says Allen Wehrmann, director of the center for groundwater science at the Illinois State Water Survey.

With water use increasing as the population swells, water levels will continue to fall -from a few inches a year to a few feet depending on location.

"They're pulling it out faster than they can recharge," says Harry Hendrickson, former head of groundwater education for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Think last summer was bad, when the drought sparked water restrictions?

"The water demands we're seeing now because of the dry weather could be a normal demand we see in a wet year in 30 years," Wehrmann said. "And then what do you do when you have a dry year?"

Only when drought reaches out and touches homeowners, or when water bills go up, do water discussions dot government meetings.

Either those discussions continue to flow, or the water in long-term won't, warn experts who've been studying water availability in Chicago's collar counties.

Supply and demand

The math is simple.

Today, 7 million people live in the six-county northeastern Illinois region.

They use 630 million gallons of water per day, or 90 gallons of water per person per day -average use of all Americans, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In 2020, population forecasts show the six-county region hitting 9-million people.

If the average holds, they'll use 810 million gallons of water each and every day.

Statistically, there will be enough water overall to accommodate that demand.

Realistically, however, the distribution of growth and existing water sources won't match up. Many towns, because of money, geography or federal limits, can't tap into Lake Michigan.

That means they must rely on the water down below - which will be in short supply as soon as 2020, according to a Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission study.

Kane and McHenry counties sit in the bull's-eye of water worries because they're chiefly reliant on wells. Among the townships at risk are Batavia, Dundee, Geneva, Rutland and St. Charles in Kane County, and Algonquin and Grafton in McHenry County.

Some spots in DuPage, Lake and Will counties could run into some of the same shortages, experts say.

Naperville Township in DuPage County, Hanover and Rich townships in Cook County, and DuPage and Joliet townships in Will County could be in jeopardy.

The communities in Cook and Lake counties now drinking Lake Michigan water, however, shouldn't think they have no worries.

The rate at which outlying areas tap into aquifers ultimately affects how fast Lake Michigan gets replenished.

"It's like a ripple effect," warns state Sen. Susan Garrett, a Democrat from Lake Forest who has been sounding the alarm in Springfield about long-term water shortages for several years.

The bull's-eye

McHenry County's Groundwater Resources Management Plan predicts the county's population growth, and corresponding surge in water demand, will rise 73 percent, to about 63 million gallons per day, by 2030.

While there's enough groundwater in the county as a whole to yield 120 million gallons per day, the report warns certain townships may be in trouble given that the distribution of water usage won't correspond to the water supply.

Algonquin, Grafton and McHenry townships were named in the report as in need of monitoring for water shortages by 2030, and Dorr, Nunda and Burton townships were considered to be areas of growing concern.

The future of Kane County's water supply also has been cast in a stark light, though a comprehensive account of its situation still is under way.

Kane County commissioned a five-year study to map the availability of water underground and calculate the future demands of the region. The report by the Illinois State Water and Geological Surveys is due out next year.

"The geological study will enable us to literally take slices of the county in any direction - north, south, east, west," said Paul Schuch, Kane County's director of water resources. That, in turn, can help guide future growth in the county.

Lake not immune

Because so much of Lake County sips water from Lake Michigan, many residents there may feel like water shortages can't affect them.

Philip J. Rovang, Lake County's director of planning, building and development doesn't sound so certain.

About 40 percent of the county draws water from Lake Michigan, but whether enough water exists below ground for the other 60 percent is unclear.

"We project that by the year 2020, there's going to be 280,000 residents living in western Lake County who will have to rely on non-Lake Michigan water," Rovang says.

That doesn't bode well for the county, since some officials are concerned certain aquifers are already being overtaxed.

A study of water availability is due out in a few years. It will provide a much clearer picture of what to expect.

"As soon as the results of the studies start coming in, then we can start reacting," Rovang says.

The water supply could also impact future job growth.

The county estimates 71,000 jobs will come to the county by 2020, a 20 percent increase, but that won't happen if there isn't an ample supply of "This is really a critical issue facing Lake County from an economic development standpoint," Rovang warns. "If we cannot guarantee a water supply to a future business, they're not going to come here."

Outlook dismal

While projecting future water problems is an imperfect science, the decline in well levels is more measurable proof that groundwater aquifers are under stress.

DuPage County suffered a steady drop in well levels before most of its towns switched to Lake Michigan water in the 1990s. Over 80 years, the water table in the county dropped 700 to 800 feet.

Since Lake Michigan saved the day by largely relieving DuPage of its dependence on groundwater, the well levels have climbed, but "it's not coming up as quickly as anticipated," Hendrickson said.

That could be because so much of the land is paved over, making it more difficult for rain and snow to soak into the ground and recharge aquifers.

According to Hendrickson, about 24 percent of DuPage County has been paved over, and "eastern Kane County is headed that way."

People who manage wells see it, too.

Former Huntley Utilities Superintendent Will Smith said some wells don't pump as much water as they used to, and the water levels are slipping.

"Every year they drop down 10 to 15 feet," Smith said.

Experts mean to sound the alarm, but not raise a panic. The future is manageable, they say, as long as communities start planning now.

"Our populations are getting to the point where we are reaching the (the end of) easy availability to draw water," said Larry Thomas of the Crystal Lake engineering firm Baxter and Woodman. "Now we have to start thinking about how we're going to allocate the water, how we're going to fairly distribute the water."

 Go to Part II - Go to Part III

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