Suburban Growth on Water Supplies


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Suburban growth seen as crimping regional water supplies
By Michael Hawthorne
Tribune staff reporter
Published June 17, 2006

For a sprawling metropolis next to one of the world's largest sources of fresh water, the idea that the Chicago area could suffer water shortages may seem preposterous.

But regional planners say northeastern Illinois is expected to grow so fast during the next two decades that finding water for everyone will be difficult.

The forecast is dire enough that state and regional officials are embarking on a new effort to give water a bigger role in determining where people live.

Details are sketchy--and for now the plans and programs are strictly voluntary--but a growing number of planners and environmentalists argue that taking steps now could prevent a water crisis in the future.

"This isn't something that communities in the region have traditionally thought about," said Kerry Leigh, director of environment and national resources for the Northeastern Illinois Regional Planning Commission.

The commission estimates that at least 11 townships in Chicago's outer suburbs will experience water shortages by 2020. Some experts think the number could be even higher, based on projected increases in population and development.

Illinois lawmakers included about $1 million in the next state budget for the Illinois Water Supply Initiative, an effort prompted by a series of reports documenting how and where the area could go dry.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich nudged the program along with an executive order directing state agencies to put together water management plans for the Chicago area and a swath of central Illinois.

People behind the initiative say municipalities need to think more about how water sources extend beyond political boundaries and to start planning for limited supplies.

Among other steps, they say, more land needs to be set aside so rainfall can percolate back into the ground and recharge underground aquifers that provide well water. There also needs to be more emphasis on conserving water and managing development so water is used more wisely, the planners say.

"We don't think all of the solutions have to be painful," said Debbie Stone, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "The idea is to avoid situations where we can't accommodate a new [manufacturing] plant or have to restrict lawn watering to every other day."

Much of the Chicago area relies on water from Lake Michigan, but that source is all but tapped out.

After engineers reversed the Chicago River at the beginning of the last century, other states sued Illinois for reducing the amount of water that flows into the Great Lakes. The result was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that limits the amount of water pumped from Lake Michigan to about 1.2 billion gallons a day.

That water is divvied up between Chicago and about 200 other cities and villages. It's enough for now, but probably not enough to meet increased demand as the area's population grows.

Likewise, the deep aquifer that some of Chicago's outer suburbs rely on is almost dry.

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