3 Murky waters:
The challenges we face

Understanding drinking water issues in our region

What are the issues we face?

While our region generally enjoys an ample amount of freshwater, we are not without critical challenges–issues that need to be addressed today. These challenges include increasing pollution, old infrastructure, fragmented service and, yes, some communities face wells running dry.

Do we have enough?

If current practices continue, some groundwater-dependent community and industrial wells could be unusable within 15 years, and even more will be at risk by 2050.

In 2015, the Illinois State Water Survey, which has been monitoring and modeling our water resources for more than a century, released a seminal report about the groundwater levels in wells. The report sounded an alarm about how much groundwater we really have:

  • ‍Our deep sandstone aquifers are being depleted unsustainably.
  • High-capacity wells could be unusable in as little as 15 years.
  • Many more wells could be dry by 2050.[1]

Why does this matter? About 20 percent of Northeastern Illinois’ population—including people in the outer-ring suburbs of Chicago—rely on water sources other than Lake Michigan, and about 78 percent of that population relies solely on groundwater. To serve those communities, some 90 million gallons per day are being withdrawn from the deep sandstone aquifers—a withdrawal rate at least twice as high as what experts say is sustainable. Some areas are already experiencing significant depletion and some shallower, private wells are already going dry.

Progression of groundwater depletion over time with continued well pumping

Maps of groundwater depletion in 2014 compared to 2050 (projected)

Source Illinois State Water Survey and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning

Some might think the easy answer to this issue is for more communities to tap into Lake Michigan as a source for drinking water. However, Illinois’ allotted diversion of Lake Michigan water is limited by a U.S. Supreme Court decree. So while we may think our region enjoys an unlimited amount of fresh water, that’s simply not the case. Lake Michigan is not a solution for all communities.

A dwindling water supply has the potential to harm our regional economy, costing local jobs if businesses relocate due to water-shortage concerns. The good news is that this is preventable if groundwater users—including municipalities, self-supplied commercial and industrial facilities and irrigators—plan and work together. Best practices in water reporting and demand management must be widely adopted by all communities to protect current and future populations.

Is it clean?

A note on lead pipes and fixtures

Another known toxin is lead. Lead poisoning is a serious health condition, and eliminating exposure to lead in drinking water is important. Lead can enter drinking water when service pipes or fixtures that contain lead corrode. These pipes can be owned by a utility or a private property owner and should be updated to reduce public health risks.

Northeastern Illinois’ water supply faces increasing pollution from a variety of sources, including:

  • Chlorides from salting our roads and sidewalks, as well as water softeners.
  • Fertilizers from lawns and agriculture.
  • Organic matter (such as human waste) and inorganic matter (such as pharmaceuticals) from sanitary sewer overflows and leaking septic systems.
  • Toxins from industrial processes.

Clean water should be top of mind for community officials like you because it’s critical to our health and well-being. Increases in water pollution in our local water sources—lakes, rivers and underground aquifers—ultimately raise the cost of drinking water. The more pollution we have in our drinking water sources, the more we’ll spend in additional filtration and treatment processes, the more we’ll ultimately have to charge the consumer to cover these costs.

Increasingly, water pollution is a costly issue in Northeastern Illinois. 

In March 2016, the Illinois State Water Survey released a report on the shallow groundwater quality in Kane County.[2] The greatest concern identified is chloride: Two-thirds of water samples taken from eastern Kane County between 2003 and 2015 had chloride concentrations above safe levels. Road salt is one of the most likely sources of this contamination, and the unfortunate result can be increased water treatment costs.

Another type of pollutant that is negatively impacting our water quality are nutrients. This group of pollutants includes phosphorus and nitrogen, two ingredients typically included in fertilizers. When nutrient levels in surface waters are excessive, one result is algae blooms. Nutrients get into the water from a variety of sources including fertilizing crops and lawns.

Past and current land uses can also pose contamination threats to drinking water supplies. For example, toxins leached from landfills and industrial complexes that discharge into local waterways can pollute our water sources as well. Implementing source water protection practices, such as reducing nutrients and practicing sensible salting, are necessary to ensure your community’s water source remains clean.

Will the system endure?

Much of Northeastern Illinois’ water infrastructure—treatment plants, pumps and pipes—built to collect, treat and deliver round-the-clock drinking water to our homes and businesses is coming to the end of its useful life. Plainly put, the infrastructure is old—anywhere from 50 to 100 years old—and in dire need of repair and replacement. It is fact, not hyperbole, to say that if we fail to act, we face catastrophes such as water main breaks, collapsing infrastructure and drinking water contamination. If we don’t act, the question isn’t whether disaster will strike, but when. 

What’s more, our pipe network is buried out-of-sight, so it is also out-of-mind. Practically speaking, it’s challenging to know the condition of buried pipes—but we know there are areas of grave concern: Estimates suggest that we lose 26 billion gallons each year due to deteriorating infrastructure—enough water to fill more than one Willis Tower every week.[3] Without a clear understanding of our water infrastructure conditions, we’ll continue to see utilities across Northeastern Illinois waste money on drinking water that never gets to consumers.

Addressing our aging water infrastructure in Illinois is estimated to cost around $21.5 billion through 2030.[4] Our local water utilities need viable funding and financing streams in order to make this huge investment. At the same time, equitable water rate practices need to be employed to ensure everyone in our communities has access to clean drinking water. Now more than ever, industry standards in auditing and reporting the condition of our systems, establishing asset management programs and identifying investment needs are imperative.

The best available information suggests 1.3 Willis Towers of water are lost each week in Northeastern Illinois.

Source: Metropolitan Planning Council

The water energy nexus

Ensuring our systems are in good condition also reduces energy consumption. Water and energy are interdependent—water is required to generate energy—and energy is required to generate and deliver drinking water. In fact, as much as 40 percent of operating costs for drinking water systems can be for energy.[5] A survey done by the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association found that energy costs on average ranged between 8–15 percent of a drinking water utility’s operating budget, with the maximum reported at 38 percent.[6] Crumbling infrastructure not only wastes water, it wastes energy.

Our region shares water sources. Collaboration across communities is important.

Drinking water sources map

Source Metropolitan Planning Council

Fragmented system, disconnected users

Northeastern Illinois has more than 400 community water supply systems in operation. Most of these utilities are owned and managed by a municipality, which means decisions about water utility operations, infrastructure investment, future planning and service rates are made at the local level by elected officials, like you, who may or may not have prior expertise in managing a water utility.

Inefficiencies in water service delivery add unnecessary costs to our community members. Given the increasing challenges of supply constraints, water pollution and infrastructure reinvestment needs, our region needs to explore economies of scale and service sharing between utilities. 

Northeastern Illinois also lacks a well-adopted system for tracking water usage from each utility. As a result, we don’t have a clear understanding of current demand for drinking water. While communities that use Lake Michigan water must report usage and infrastructure conditions, the rest of the region—particularly those communities who are facing water shortages—are not held to the same standard. Because of these factors, our region is extremely fragmented in our approach to managing a shared, vital resource. The action of one community can impact another, which is why we need more coordinated, regional water supply planning.

Another fundamental challenge is that we, as consumers, are very disconnected from the complex system that provides us with water to drink, bathe and survive. Our region’s collective lack of awareness about our drinking water may stem from historically ample supplies, the buried nature of water infrastructure and the subsidized costs we have enjoyed for water service. We haven’t needed to give a second thought to the infrastructure and operations it takes to deliver water to our homes and businesses. However, as outlined above, conditions related to our drinking water have changed and communities need to be engaged and coordinate across municipal boundaries in order to address the above water resource challenges.

Climate change stresses our water systems 

The latest climate models predict that Illinois’ temperatures will increase an average of 2.1–3.0 degrees Fahrenheit by 2035 and precipitation will increase between 1–5% with much of that rainfall happening in spring months.[7] This will lead to drier, hotter summers and wetter, springs. This change will significantly impact our water supplies. If precipitation is more intense, increased flooding can overwhelm wastewater treatment facilities, sending large amounts of pollution—during a combined sewer overflow—into drinking water sources. On the other hand, having longer periods of drought will reduce the amount and availability of drinking water. So both weather patterns greatly impact the availability of clean and plentiful drinking water supplies.

Surface water impacts from drought

Decreased water levels and higher water temperatures produce algae blooms that reduce water quality and make it more expensive to treat drinking water. These conditions also affect local ecosystems including aquatic life, which impacts the health of a water source and the ability for recreation including fishing and swimming.

Groundwater impacts from drought

Given the current over-pumping of our groundwater, drought will further threaten supply. Likewise, during drought conditions, groundwater pumping can reduce the natural flow of water that would otherwise recharge lakes, streams and rivers.

Developing and continuously revising an adaptive and collaborative approach to water supply planning and management is imperative to dealing with the effects of a changing climate. Addressing and planning for these impacts is important to help mitigate future supply constraints and increasing costs for treatment.

Questions for your staff: Drinking water challenges

  • If your community uses groundwater: Are we facing drinking water shortages?
  • What current or emerging water pollution issues do we have in our drinking water source(s)?
  • How are we keeping track of our drinking water infrastructure conditions to ensure our system remains safe and sustainable?
  • Do we partner with our neighboring communities on drinking water issues? What opportunities do you suggest we look into for improved coordination between our municipalities?
  • How are we adapting our drinking water system and infrastructure to remain viable with increasingly severe weather patterns?
  1. Illinois State Water Survey Prairie Research Institute. Changing Groundwater Levels in the Sandstone Aquifers of Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin: Impacts on Available Water Supply. Champaign, IL. 2015.
  2. Kelly, Walton R., Hadley, Daniel R., Mannix, Devin H. Shallow Groundwater Sampling in Kane County, 2015. Champaign, IL. 2016.
  3. Metropolitan Planning Council. Immeasurable Loss Modernizing Lake Michigan Water Use. Chicago, IL. 2013.
  4. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis. Washington DC. 2002.
  5. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Energy Efficiency for Water Utilities. Washington DC. 2017.
  6. Ilinois Section American Water Works Association. Water-Energy Nexus Survey Summary Report. Aurora, IL. 2012.
  7. United States Environmental Protection Agency. What Climate Change Means for Illinois. Washington DC. 2016.