State of Our Water Part III


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A Three Part Series on the State of our Water

The Daily Herald

Part III:  Efforts to quell a water shortfall

Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted Sunday, September 05, 2006

More than 36 states expect local or regional water shortages in the next seven years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Increasing demand from a growing population will simply outstrip supply.

Eastern parts of McHenry County could run out of local water supplies by 2030.

Kane and Lake counties are no better off and now are studying water supplies, seeking a better grasp of when wells might run dry.

“As the population continues to grow, we’re going to need more water,” state Sen. Susan Garrett of Lake Forest says simply.

Ten or 15 years ago, most outlying suburbs didn't have any lawn-watering restrictions on their books. Today, officers like Pete Albanese in Lake in the Hills often patrol for watering violations during droughts because of low water levels.

Saving water at home

Water, however, is a finite resource. And with scientists warning that global warming will compound the problem, people must accept that water is a limited resource, says David Dempsey, a policy adviser for the environmental group Clean Water Action.

“We think it’s inexhaustible, when clearly it’s not,” Dempsey says. “It’s all too reminiscent of the lumbering era, when we just kept chopping trees down thinking it would last forever and we ended up with a wasteland.”

Until science figures out a way to create new supplies, experts say, we’re stuck with current stocks — and must learn how to better manage what we have.

If we don’t, if we wait, we will pay more for it, experts say.

“It gets harder and harder and more expensive to deal with some of these problems,” says Larry Thomas, chief operating officer with Crystal Lake engineering firm Baxter & Woodman.

How long local governments — and taxpayers — wait will determine future costs.

“It depends how much of a crash program you want to be in,” Thomas says.

Two areas, appropriately sitting on the edge of suburban sprawl, are on the cutting edge of doing just that.

Tying homes to water

In Campton Township, so many private wells have gone dry that it may be one of the first communities east of the Mississippi to limit future homes to existing water supply.

Normally, a private residential well can be sunk anywhere, because it needs to pump only 70 gallons per minute and doesn’t need to go more than 200 feet down.

When Campton residents noticed their wells weren’t pumping enough water, they dug deeper — at least one family even down to 700 feet.

Realizing this problem could signal other problems below, Campton Township paid the U.S. Geological Survey $235,000 for a detailed groundwater analysis and computer model to pinpoint how much water specific aquifers can continuously provide.

That might not sound like a revolutionary concept, but the study was the first of its kind in the Midwest, the survey staff said.

Now that this study has been completed, it is essentially an underground guide map to water supplies, said John Kupar, a Campton Township trustee and geologist.

“There were some areas that were experiencing water shortages. This study and the model gave us the reason why they were experiencing water shortages,” Kupar said.

Trustees intend to require that development plans in the township hinge on an adequate water supply.

In other words, if a developer wants to build a 500-home subdivision, the proposal gets run though this computer model. The model could show that aquifers in that area can support that supply, or a smaller amount, like perhaps 300 homes.

Kupar views this as simply a common sense method to make certain that demand doesn’t outstrip supply.

 “The tool was developed not to stop growth. The tool was developed to manage growth in a responsible manner,” Kupar said.

In Western states, linking growth with available water supply is standard.

Arizona and California both require that developers prove there’s enough water for proposed developments, A. Dan Tarlock,  a Chicago-Kent College of Law professor who specializes in water-use law.

“Up until 10 or 15 years ago, the assumption was cities have a duty to supply water for everybody, period,” he said. “That idea has kind of faded.”

Evidence of that abounds in another pair of studies as well.

Kane County’s five-year, $1.8æmillion study due out in 2007 by the Illinois Water Survey will on a much grander scale reveal what aquifers lie beneath the county in a state-of-the-art, three-dimensional model.

Gray water option

Karen Kabbes, president of Kabbes Engineering of Barrington, stood in front of an audience of McHenry County government leaders in late June and asked them a question they no doubt had difficulty answering.

“Why would Richmond want a water reuse ordinance?”

The town of 1,103 residents at the northern edge of Illinois still feels and looks like a tiny all-American town free of the problems large populations bring.

But because water use transcends regional borders, Richmond is perhaps the first community in the state to approve an ordinance requiring businesses in the southern section of town to use recycled water.

The village is building a pipe to take the cleaned-up water in areas south of the new treatment plant so businesses can tap into it for lawn watering and other jobs requiring water that people won’t have to drink.

The village of Richmond had to replace its 1920s treatment center anyway, so as part of that project, an additional $1.3æmillion pipeline is being put into place for recycled water.

The goal is to squeeze more out of each drop of water and help preserve Nippersink Creek, one of the cleanest creeks in Illinois.

The cleaned-up water will be sprayed onto golf courses and other lawns children aren’t likely to play on. It will then trickle into the Earth, which cools and filters the water on the way back to the creek.

“We believe we have the first and only ordinance in the state that sets up all the criteria for reuse of gray water,” said Tim Savage, Richmond’s village administrator.

While those wanting the reused water — also called gray water or reusable water — may have to install some additional pipes, the water most likely will be free to any business in the beginning, Savage said.

And once there’s enough interest, the price tag will probably only be a quarter of the cost of fresh water.

The town’s golf course will get the reused water for free for the first 10 years, and then after that pay 25 percent of the cost of fresh water.

And users won’t have to worry about cutting back on use during a drought because they’re simply using water others already have.

Recycled water

Though routine in other states, the concept of reusing water is so new that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has mostly restricted the program to businesses.

“The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is not comfortable in authorizing single-family homeowners to use this water for irrigation purposes,” Kabbes said.

The agency prefers only places that have dedicated maintenance staffs be allowed to use the water, she said.

While Richmond’s ordinance is a novelty in Illinois, the concept or reusing water already appears to be turning into a trend.

Though Huntley doesn’t have a water reuse ordinance, every new development that wants to come to town is asked to look at reusing water, said Bill Blecke, Huntley’s village engineer.

Grass at Whisper Creek Golf Course in Del Webb Sun City is already being watered with cleaned-up effluent, and now the community plans on diverting a third of the treated waste water from the Talamore subdivision to water Betsy Warrington Park and other areas.

Once the water has been cleaned up and is good enough to use but not drink, it will sit in a pond along Main Street. From there, it will be pumped to areas that need to be watered.

“They want it because it guarantees their commons areas and open spaces will be irrigated,” said Jim Schwartz, Huntley’s public works director. He predicts the water will probably be given away for now, but at some point a user fee will be initiated.

Right now Del Webb Sun City, which uses reused water, is paying about $0.10 per 1,000 gallons for reused water, compared with $2.72 per 1,000 gallons of drinkable water.

It will cost you

Whatever answers eventually surface as the keys to coping with dwindling supplies of water, the cost will increase, experts warn.

Water in the Midwest has been so plentiful that the only real cost for residents is the delivery fee, which is going to increase the harder delivery becomes.

Piping water from the western portions of the counties — or neighboring counties — will undoubtedly be expensive.

Though it hasn’t affected people’s wallets yet, the value has been climbing in other ways as well.

As recently as 2002, homeowners in most of McHenry and Kane counties could water lawns to their heart’s content.

No more.

Outdoor watering restrictions during the summer months have become standard.

Water conservation in general is quickly becoming the norm nationally, said Greg Kail, spokesman for the American Water Works Association, a Denver-based nonprofit scientific and educational society dedicated to improving water quality and supply.

The time when water conservation was considered a quaint method of being environmentally friendly has passed, Kail said.

Now, it’s conservation of water by necessity.

“It’s a finite resource, and if you overuse it, you’re going to be in a position where you don’t have enough water for your community,” Kail said.

Today’s residents shouldn’t worry too much about stiff water rationing, however.

“We are still many, many years away from talking about regulating water withdrawals in Kane County,” said Paul Schuch, director of water resources for Kane County.

How long precisely?

No one knows.

It all depends where the debate over the value of water settles.

“That’s something we’re struggling with. What is the value of water?” asks Allen Wehrmann, director of the Center for Groundwater Science at the Illinois State Water Survey.

 Back to Part I - Back to Part II

Home | State of Our Water Part II | State of Our Water Part III | Water Source | Gaze West For Water | Water From The Fox River | Suburban Growth on Water Supplies

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