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Lisa Jacobson/MEDILL News Service

Chicago, dependent on its freshwater resource--Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan water supply: Something to be treasured

by Lisa Jacobson
March 03, 2009

water rate
water cost

Population growth statistics

•People served by Lake Michigan to increase by 817,000 between 2009-2030
•1.5 million additional people in Illinois between 2030-2050
•Northeastern Illinois is expected to grow to an estimated 10.9 million by 2040


Why can we only pump so much water out of Lake Michigan?

•The project began in 1887. As the population of Chicago continued to grow, a potential for more waste existed and also a concern for serious water quality disturbance.
•They realized they could cut a canal though the Mississippi and Great Lakes basin, connecting Chicago River flow into Illinois river and ultimately Mississippi
•In 1925, a decree of diversion reduction was ordered as well as the creation of sewage treatment plants
•By the 1930s, the flow was not to exceed 1500 cubic feet per second of water and only applied to direct diversion
•Current restrictions mandated by the Unites States Supreme Court in 1967, added domestic pumpage including runoff
•These restrictions say that only 3,200 cubic feet per second of water can be pumped out of Lake Michigan.
•The restrictions were put in place in order to monitor the diversion efforts of the river (a river that had its course previously reversed for waste management purposes)


As Chicago's population grows its water supply must too, but with overworked aquifers and legal constraints, local officials are looking for solutions.

“Even in this region, water resources are not infinite, they are finite,” said Daniel Injerd, chief of Lake Michigan management for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.  

“Aquifers in and around Chicago are being pumped faster than they can recharge,” said Josh Ellis, program associate for the Metropolitan Planning Council. “As the population continues to grow, that will only be exacerbated.”

While the total actual need for water has been relatively constant, Illinois’ northeastern population is expected to grow to an estimated 10.9 million by 2040, more than double what the population was in the 1950s and 35 percent more than it is today.

But as a result of a decree passed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, no more than  3,200 cubic feet per second of water can be pumped out of Lake Michigan.

Within the six county regions of Chicago, which include DuPage, Cook and Will counties, and the eastern half of Lake County, approximately 70 percent get their water from Lake Michigan.

Outside of Lake Michigan allocation areas, the remaining 30 percent are dependent upon ground water. Some of these cities include Joliet, Aurora and Elgin.

Water exists; the question is how to manage it.

“You need to do long-term water research plans,” said Injerd. “If current water trends continue, demand for water will increase 38 percent.”

Getting people to focus on conservation is a matter of constant persuasion, said Tom LePorte, spokesman for Chicago’s Department of the Environment.

Different ideas exist about how to solve the water problem. The Metropolitan Planning Council suggests regional thinking and planning.

Since Illinois has not had a water supply plan since 1984, “it has become clear that a statewide plan planned by state then given to the state for everyone to follow was not the most democratic,” Ellis said.

The solution: a regional plan.

“Each region has its own needs so why don’t we do regional planning but make sure the state sets standards, Ellis said.

Outer counties have been doing more local planning to put a stop to water problems. This planning includes development near water sources, increased conservation and improved infrastructure, said Lenore Beyer-Clow, of Openlands, an organization dedicated to preserving public open space in northeastern Illinois.

The overall initiative works to increase awareness for what water resources are currently available and what will be available in the future.

“We cannot change the amount taken out of Lake Michigan,” said Beyer-Clow, “so the only way to address that is through expanding the amount through conservation.”

Just as regions have different needs, they are also held to different standards. For example, while suburbs around Chicago have water meters, there are still more than 350,000 homes in the city that remain unmetered.

As a solution, the department of water management is working to promote volunteer metering, “which is likely to save [residents] money and make them more conscious of water they are using,” LePorte said.

An ordinance to promote volunteer metering is in the hands of City Council officials. This would promise residents that if they have a meter installed, their bills would not exceed the assessed rate for the first seven years.

With Chicago having some of the lowest water rates in the country, $1.33 per 1,000 gallons, “people would probably save money if they had a meter if in a smaller residence,” LePorte said.

“In Chicago, the majority of single family homes, two flats and three flats do not have water meters. As a result, they have no idea how much water they are using and their bill has nothing to do with how much water they are using,” Ellis said.

To encourage people to conserve water you need to price it accordingly, said Beyer-Clow.

“Conservation is generally a very cost effective way to meeting water supply needs,” said Injerd, “and Chicago is hopefully moving towards that.”

The shallow aquifers and deep wells are often served by the Kankakee and Fox rivers, which incur limitations for future demand.

The aquifers are being pumped so quickly that the water is being depleted faster than it can be replenished by rainfall. This serves as a problem in suburban communities that rely on the aquifers as their sole water source.

While Injerd claims that Chicago water use has gone down by almost 200 gallons a day since the ‘90s, as a result of serious efforts towards replacement of water mains and decaying pipes and a move from industry based economy to service based economy, water allocation projects are still important as growth continues to migrate westward.

While conservation programs exist, they are on a volunteer basis. “There are no requirements to conserve water,” said Al Wehrman, head of the center for ground water science. “At this point, it is just a matter of being a good steward.”

While we are not in crisis mode yet, Ellis assures, it is because we are doing the right thing. “It shouldn’t require a crisis to make us get smart and do the right thing.”

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