Having water is a value commodity that history shows can be eroded by a lack of accessibility and challenges imposed by internal and external challenges.
However, it can be strengthened through water reuse, aquifer storage and recovery, desalination of the Mount Simon sandstone aquifer, a switch to shallow aquifers, access to Lake Michigan and conversion to river water.
Will County Environmental Network and The Will-South Cook Soil & Water Conservation District came together Sept. 14 to host a Water Summit. The program was meant to identify and bring awareness of groundwater priorities, as well as pinpoint what is needed by business, industry, farmers, citizens and government.
“[The issue is] really important to all of us,” said Jim Robbins, chairman of The Will-South Cook Soil & Water Conservation District. “It’s something we take for granted [and] might not be there in the future.”
Keynote speakers included Neil Pellmann, a resource conservationist with Will-Couth Cook Soil & Water Conservation District; and Walt Kelly, groundwater geochemist and head of the Groundwater Science Section at the Illinois State Water Survey headquartered in the Prairie Institute at the University of Illinois.
Kelly said that while northeastern Illinois is a “water rich” region, water supply planning remains crucial in the region.
Sandstone aquifers represent the primary source of water in northeastern Illinois, to date. Research conducted by experts show that current water supplies become less of a viable option in the next 15 to 25 years.
The first wells dug in the region date back to 1863. Previous to that, the water came from outside the area in question.
The pressure put on the aquifers long ago positioned water to run from wells without pumping. Over the years, the water levels have remained steady in much of the region, but they fell in northwest Will County.
In 2014, Kelly and other experts identified more than 600 sandstone wells in northern Illinois by conducting a synoptic water-level measurement, which is a special type of indicator providing a snapshot of an aquifer. Typically, these examinations are run every five to 10 years, depending on resources. At that point, the data from the wells is plotted on a topographic map to measure the depths of water.
The levels of water in northeastern Illinois have dropped approximately 800 to 900 feet since the start of pumping in 1863. Kelly likened the diminishing water supply levels to a cone of depression, or the low point of water depth, and said that makes for what he thinks is the largest drop in the world.
Data shows that between 1959 and 2014, there was a lot of water use in DuPage and Cook counties out of the sandstone aquifers.
History shows that experts grew concerned for the rise in water use in DuPage and Cook counties. Around the 1970s, the two counties went off the deep sandstone aquifer and switched to Lake Michigan water. Since that time, water levels have fallen off in communities in the south and in the west.
“You can see the cone of depression getting bigger and bigger right centered around Joliet there,” Kelly said. “This is actually deeper than the cone of depression we had back in the 70s and early 80s, and it’s focused just in the one area now, instead of more than one area. You can see that we rebounded up here in the DuPage-Cook county area, although we’re not back to where we started from.”
Kelly added, “We’ll never get back to where we started from unless we all disappear for a few hundred years.”
There are a number of problems with communities seeking access to Lake Michigan water. A 1966 Supreme Court ruling limits how much water the State of Illinois can remove each day to 3,200 cubic feet per second, which makes for a little more than two billion gallons a day.
“For many years, [the City of Chicago was] actually at or above that limit, but they currently are now under that limit,” Kelly said. “They’ve done a good job of conservation, the recession helped, raised their water rates—that helped—replacing a lot of leaky water mains.”
Kelly added, “There’s actually quite a bit of water available from the Lake Michigan allocation that could be used in places like suburbs out here.”
Several people in attendance for the meeting spoke of the need to address the water supply issue not only at the local level through village boards and city councils but regionally. That’s where organizations like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning come in.
Regional water supplying is meant to ensure there are adequate and viable supplies of water available at a reasonable cost for all users.
Kelly stressed that water supply planning never stops and said work continues in the region to address the looming crisis.
In Will County, experts say 12 million gallons of water is an acceptable pumping level for which the aquifers can handle. Right now, the area in question is using three times that amount.
The effort to gain access to the Lake Michigan water is an expensive option for correcting the issue, Kelly said. Still, the region can benefit greatly from getting as many communities off groundwater supplies as possible.
Kelly stressed that if a community is switching to surface water, they continue to need a back-up source and said sandstone aquifers remain a necessity.
The Water Summit brought in a number of business professionals, farmers, government staff and local citizens.
Sharon Bruma, of Naperville, said she is glad she decided to drop in.
“I’m interested in water quality issues, and I know Naperville went through these same questions,” she said. “I’m interested to know what options are out there, and if the problems are similar.”
Bruma acknowledged that when she moved to Naperville, she did not know anything of the water supply issues that existed there. Since that time, she has tried her hand at building a rain garden outside her home and incorporated native plantings to do her part in improving water quality.
Bruma went to school for three years studying fresh water and said she found the Water Summit to be very relevant.
“A lot of this I learned about [in school,] and I do go to a whole variety of different water-related seminars,” she said. “There are a lot of them available.”
Bruma said she learned of many potential ways to resolve water supply issues by sitting in on the presentation.
“There’s more options than what I expected,” she said.