Illinois Needs a Water Study, Analyses Say Past Summer's Drought May Kick-Start Long-Languishing Water Management

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Byline: Mick Zawislak Daily Herald Staff Writer

Last summer's scorched earth and watering bans brought home the importance of having adequate water supplies, but the case for a pending crisis had been made long before.

With the drought as a catalyst, a coalition of regional thinkers now is pushing the state to lead a comprehensive effort to study and manage dwindling water supplies.

That goal, scheduled to be outlined today with the release in Chicago of the report "Troubled Waters: Meeting Future Water Needs in Illinois," will come with a request to Gov. Rod Blagojevich for another tight resource: cash.

"We are looking for an appropriation to go with this - we will be asking for $5 million," said state Sen. Susan Garrett. "It would be a grant-based allocation."

The Lake Forest Democrat is one of the featured speakers discussing the report, prepared by the Campaign for Sensible Growth, Metropolitan Planning Council and Openlands Project.

Blagojevich already has gotten the message and is expected to issue an executive order today to "launch a comprehensive, statewide planning process to develop a water supply planning and management strategy," said Steve Frenkel, the governor's adviser on environmental issues.

"We need to figure out what is our supply and what our demand will be," he said. The process would be overseen by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and begin in two designated "water quality planning areas" that do not receive Lake Michigan water.

Money is another matter.

"We know that resources are required, and we're ready to make an investment in this project," Frenkel said. The amount will be determined based on availability as the state begins its budget process.

Frenkel said the process will address some issues in the report. It reiterates past data suggesting 22 Chicago-area townships will experience water shortages in 15 years and "many more" will be added to the list by 2025.

Those familiar with the issue say water shortages are isolated now but expected to intensify as continuing growth increases demand.

"There have been lots of task forces and commissions over the years ... what we really need is a strong state role, funding source and regional water plan," said Scott Goldstein, vice president of policy of planning for Chicago-based MPC, a coalition of business and civic groups.

Last summer's drought - which sparked watering restrictions and outright bans in some places that rarely, if ever, have experienced them - highlighted what can happen when the figurative well runs dry, say Goldstein and others.

"What we see now are symptoms. We're not at a crisis yet," he said. "We're stretching the infrastructure to its limits right now, yet we're approving developments. How are we connecting these decisions together?"

In Chicago and the suburbs, 201 public water supplies deliver Lake Michigan water to nearly 7 million people, the primary source in the area. Other sources are surface water - such as the Fox River, tapped by Elgin decades ago - and deep and shallow underground aquifers.

"The deep aquifer system and Lake Michigan are now at or near their sustainable or legally mandated limits and cannot be relied upon as significant sources of additional water for the region," the report states.

With the Chicago-area population expected to grow by 24 percent - to more than 10 million people by 2030 - the increased demand will have to be met by aquifers or other sources, such as the Fox River. …