Plan and coordinate with your neighbors

Drinking water is an integral aspect of planning for municipalities. Without ample water, communities are unable to thrive, let alone exist. Integrating water resources and utility service considerations into your community’s current and future plans, policies and ordinances is essential. Following are actions your municipality can take to integrate water more holistically into community planning.

Go Include water in your community comprehensive plans

Land use decisions and future planned development directly impact local water quality, quantity and future usage. They also influence long-term infrastructure maintenance costs. Which is why incorporating water resource and service considerations within community comprehensive plans or land use plans is important. For example, large parking lots next to surface water will impact water quality as stormwater runoff that contains salt, oil, gas and litter can flow directly into drinking water sources. Likewise, different types of housing and landscaping have different impacts on drinking water usage in a community. 

The scale at which community planning evaluates the approval of a development proposal must be larger than the development itself. Development generates development—once a new housing development is approved, it attracts other developments such as retail, gas stations, schools, etc. All of these will require more drinking water and more water infrastructure that needs to be maintained over time by the municipality. Incorporating these considerations and calculating the water demand impact is important to ensuring sustainable service and supplies today and in the future. 

Is your community water-wise? 

The International Water Association has developed Principles for Water-Wise Cities in order to assist leaders in developing and implementing resilient urban water planning and design. These principles encourage collaboration between local government and the communities they represent. Cities around the world are embracing a new way of incorporating water into future planning—will your community join in being a water-wise city too?

Many communities now include details about drinking water service and source water protection within comprehensive plans. Whole chapters that address water are showing up in these plans. Following are beneficial topics to address within your community’s comprehensive plans:

  • Overview of the water supply system
    • History of water service in the community
    • Water source
    • Water infrastructure
  • Information on water consumption and future forecasting
    • Data on current drinking water usage (total and per capita)
    • Future projected water usage needs
  • Water supply challenges and plans to address those challenges (current or future)
    • Supply constraints based on data usage
    • Water pollution challenges
    • Infrastructure condition issues
  • Water-wise programs and initiatives
    • Public education initiatives, and customer rebate or incentive programs
    • Outdoor watering restrictions
    • Landscape ordinances
  • Drinking water goals for the community
    • Demand management goals
    • Land use and density goals based on average water consumption
    • Emergency management and back-up plans

Ensure your community planners and water utility managers are coordinating and incorporating important drinking water considerations within the larger planning picture for your community. Here in Northeastern Illinois the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) produced a regional water supply/demand plan in 2010 called Water 2050. The plan includes population forecasting, water demand scenario modeling, impacts on available supply as well as demand management strategies for addressing potential shortages.

Holistic water management—the one water approach

Many leading water management agencies, communities and organizations nationwide are embracing a holistic approach to managing water resources. As defined by the U.S. Water Alliance, One Water is the concept by which all water resources are managed in a sustainable, inclusive and integrated way. One Water encourages coordination across previously siloed industries—drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, planning, architecture, transportation, energy, etc. All of these fields must work together to address how we improve our approach to managing water resources more sustainably.

What is a drought?

Drought occurs when there is a prolonged period of little to no rainfall, which can occur at different durations, timing and intensity. The National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) has defined drought as “a period of excessive dryness long or intense enough to affect agriculture, habitats or people… (and) are difficult to define because it often develops slowly over months or years…”[1]

Go Plan for droughts

Variability in climate can cause drought, which can lead to water shortages. Drought diminishes precipitation, which reduces water levels in surface and groundwater sources. Drought also causes water-quality concerns as contaminants and algae blooms make it harder to treat this water to drinking standards. Given drought’s implications for public health, communities and utilities must prepare for these conditions through contingency plans that mitigate water quantity and quality concerns. 

Drought doesn’t only affect arid regions of the U.S. In the summer of 2012, Illinois experienced a significant drought (as did the rest of the country), which raised concerns of having enough water supply to meet demand. The Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) monitors drought conditions for groundwater and surface water, and there were noticeable impacts on water levels, mainly in shallow groundwater wells, which caused several water supply systems to be “at risk”. 

Preparing for drought requires both planning and action. Make sure your community is protected by establishing a drought plan based on sound scientific analysis. In Illinois, the State Water Plan Task Force published State of Illinois: Drought Preparedness and Response Plan. This plan includes recommendations on how communities can prepare for drought and guidance for government officials on how to protect their community water systems from drought:[2]

  • ‍Quantify existing water supply resources
  • Assess drought vulnerability
  • Identify expected changes in future water needs
  • Adopt drought preparation plans to address vulnerabilities and potential damages
  • Act on those plans when needed

The most effective drought plans involve coordination and communication between municipalities, water suppliers and land use planners. Combining the skills, knowledge and responsibilities of these sectors helps ensure drought preparedness and successful mitigation of impacts. Additionally, transparent communication with the public about the effects drought can have on their water supply helps catalyze needed water conservation at the right time. Providing information on local municipal websites, flyers defining outdoor watering restrictions and legal notices can help get the word out and change behavior patterns when it matters most.

Additional drought risks

include damages or threats to agriculture, the environment, navigation, energy production and recreation. Drought also has economic impacts:

  • Increased food prices
  • Increased water costs
  • Reduced income and spending
  • Potential loss of manufacturing and jobs
  • Delayed transit of goods (barges that cannot operate due to reduced flow in waterways)

Make sure your community is continuously monitoring its drought conditions by tracking Illinois’ precipitation levels and drought alerts by the U.S. Drought Monitor, updated weekly by the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Go Be prepared for emergencies

Emergencies are, by definition, unpredictable. Source water contamination and service disruption are the most common emergencies that impact drinking water service in addition to drought. Unplanned drinking water service disruptions can include main or service line breaks, contamination and security breaches. Being prepared is the best approach for dealing with these unplanned emergencies.

An Emergency-Response Plan (ERP) is a written document that details a drinking water system’s plan of action for responding to emergencies, disasters and other unforeseen events. The ERP may include detailed steps the public water system will take to respond to potential or actual emergencies including, but not limited to, the following: loss of water supply from a source, loss of water supply due to a major infrastructure failure, damage to power supply equipment or loss of power, or contamination of water in the distribution system from backflow or other causes.


Although water utilities might be the last place one would think of as a target for terrorism, contamination of drinking water through intentional means could have catastrophic consequences. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 requires that drinking water utilities serving more than 3,300 people conduct vulnerability assessments and develop emergency response plans.

Working with your utility managers and developing plans for storage, demand management and alternate sources of drinking water reduces the risk of being unprepared for when an emergency happens. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a guidance manual for communities and their utilities to develop emergency drinking water plans, and details the important questions and information needed to ensure continuous, safe and reliable drinking water service.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency regulates pollutant releases to surface waters. However, your community should be proactive in preventing accidents. For example, if there are major facilities that discharge waste into a water source, or have the potential for a spill of a harmful material upstream of your water supply intake, the facilities should have contingency plans for an accidental release. Similarly, groundwater can become contaminated by activities or incidents in the area. For example, if material from a tanker truck spill infiltrates the ground, the groundwater could become unusable. Due to the importance of groundwater quality, many communities implement programs designed specifically to protect groundwater. Procedures should be put in place for your water system to be notified immediately if there is an accidental release, and your water utility should have a response plan if there is an emergency.

The American Water Works Association has an Emergency Preparedness Resource Community to help support utilities in responding to emergencies, as well as a guidance manual, titled Emergency Planning for Water Utilities, that outlines what steps to take to help ensure your community has access to clean and safe water, even in times of emergency. Additionally, developing a communications plan that includes communication with employees, critical facilities in your community, consumers and media is an important part of being prepared for emergencies.

Transform Illinois

Government effectiveness is imperative. Transform Illinois was created to improve the delivery of public services and infrastructure in Northeastern Illinois. This coalition of local elected officials, civic organizations and research institutions is dedicated to promoting and supporting local government efficiency efforts.

Go Embrace regional water supply coordination + service sharing

There are more than 400 community water supply systems operating in Northeastern Illinois. Yet our water sources are shared. Our collective impact on water resources is significant and coordinating and communicating across municipal and utility boundaries is imperative. 

Each utility collects and treats, or purchases, drinking water, and distributes it through a system of pipes and pumps that it maintains. Most of these utilities are owned and managed by a municipality, which means that costs associated with operating and maintaining the system over time are borne by one community. By forming partnerships across municipal and utility boundaries, there are many opportunities to reduce costs for providing water service. Given the rising costs of operating and maintaining sustainable drinking water service, by embracing collaboration, shared services and, in some cases, regionalization, there is potential to save your community significant costs. 

The Northwest Planning Alliance (NWPA) is a good example of coordinated communication on regional water supply right here in Northeastern Illinois. The NWPA was formed as a voluntary partnership to address the issues of water supply planning and management within the non-Lake Michigan service area of our region. NWPA seeks to collaboratively plan for and steward its shared river and groundwater resources to ensure a sustainable water supply for the people, economy, environment and future generations. Formed by intergovernmental agreement, NWPA brings together five councils of government (COGs) representing approximately 80 municipalities and five counties: DeKalb, Kane, Kendall, Lake and McHenry. This Alliance has developed numerous free and helpful resources for the region.

Regional coordination and service sharing is imperative to protecting communities and water resources into the future. Some communities have partnered together to supply water service—often through legal structures such as Water Commissions and Joint Action Water Authority’s (JAWAs)—in order to save costs and improve system efficiencies. Exploring ways to partner with neighboring municipalities to save water and reduce costs for your community is important. 

In addition to the steps outlined above, a number of guides and handbooks outline best practices for incorporating water resources into community planning and regional coordination. References and links to these helpful resources can be found in the resource section of this guide.

Photo credit Baxter & Woodman

Case study

Collaboration + service sharing in action

The Carpentersville and West Dundee Water Interconnect demonstrates two communities working together for the benefit of both. The water system interconnection between the Villages of Carpentersville and West Dundee was the result of an intergovernmental agreement to assist in sharing water during emergencies and for planned water system needs. While the Interconnect provides emergency use service, it was primarily designed to allow the high pressure zone of one community to maintain adequate pressure and fire suppression flow rates while the other community’s elevated tank was removed from service for maintenance. 

The removal of an elevated water tank for maintenance can require up to six months. During this time, a community may have sufficient capacity to meet average and maximum daily demand but then lose the capability to meet instantaneous peak demands and fire suppression. So by interconnecting the two systems, one elevated tank can maintain pressure and provide fire protection for both communities, thereby continuing to protect the health and safety of residents.

Both Carpentersville and West Dundee have recognized the mutual benefit of an emergency water supply and improved operational flexibility during elevated tank maintenance, and the interconnect has been used successfully on multiple occasions to help both communities.

Questions for your staff: Water planning and regional coordination

  • How are we coordinating land-use decisions with drinking water management needs?
  • Have we integrated water resource management within our community comprehensive plans?
  • Are we incorporating the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s regional data, information and recommendations on water resources into our community plans?
  • Are we monitoring drought conditions on a regular basis?
  • Do we have a drought preparedness and response plan? Are we coordinated across departments on these plans?
  • How are we prepared to take action to conserve water resources in the event of a drought?
  • Does our community have an emergency-response plan (ERP) for drinking water service?
  • What contingency plans to we have set up to handle a drinking water emergency?
  • Have we done an assessment of possible pollution or contamination risks for our drinking water source(s)?
  • Have we coordinated with our neighboring communities to plan collaboratively about drinking water management and service?
  • What actions could we take to improve our collaboration with neighboring communities?
  • How might we consider service sharing or joint procurement to save our community and citizens money?
  1. National Drought Mitigation Center. What is Drought? Lincoln, NE. 2017.
  2. Illinois Department of Agriculture, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, University of Illinois Prairie Research Institute. State of Illinois Drought Preparedness and Response Plan. Champaign, IL. 2011.