Study: Water supply at risk

Northeastern Illinois risks scarcity without change, official says
2009-09-14T00:00:00Z Study: Water supply at riskMeghan Streit - Times Correspondent
September 14, 2009 12:00 am  • 

Despite an unusually rainy summer season, northeastern Illinois could face water shortages within a few decades, a recent study by the Illinois State Water Survey shows.

The group -- a division of the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability at the University of Illinois -- conducted an analysis of Kane County's water supplies and determined groundwater is being depleted at increased levels. The study didn't specifically test other communities, but Illinois State Water Survey hydrogeologist Scott Meyer said some modeling tools suggest the problem may exist throughout northeastern Illinois.

Based on population growth trends, the study found the state of Illinois may need up to 50 percent more water within 40 years.

"This is something that folks living in that area should be monitoring and looking out for and doing some planning to address," Meyer said. "It could impact the yields from wells, and eventually somebody could turn on a pump and no water would come out."

The Regional Water Supply Planning Group, which was formed as a result of a 2006 executive order from then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, is expected to deliver a report Tuesday that will deal with water supply projections for the 11 counties in Illinois' northeastern region. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning oversees the water planning group. Tim Loftus, with the metropolitan agency, said his group is working "in a collaborative fashion to address the issue."

"In terms of how pervasive this problem might be, the (Illinois State Water Survey) has told us we're mining the deep bedrock aquifer, and that's not anything that is sustainable and is likely to manifest more acutely in some areas than others," Loftus said.

"But at the current rate of withdrawal, we can't count on that aquifer to continue to deliver."

The Regional Water Supply Planning Group is looking at conservation and efficiency strategies that could help slow the drawdown of water supplies.

Loftus said the plan likely won't recommend new legislation, but it will "require cooperation for implementation."

The biggest driver of water use is population, Loftus said. In 2000, there were about 8.6 million people in Illinois' northeastern region, and that number could grow to 12 million by 2050, Loftus said. Couple that with the U.S. Supreme Court's restriction of the region's use of Lake Michigan water, and northeastern Illinois could be facing a future shortage, he said.

"A commitment to the status quo is not a wise management strategy," Loftus said.

Increased rates of groundwater pumping can cause water levels in wells to decline, which Meyer said can lead to higher costs and possible well failures.

Eventually, pumping can decrease groundwater flow to streams, lakes and wetlands, Meyer said.

"That means that the wells won't yield as much water as they would be expected to yield," he said. "If wells in Kane County are drilled very far down, the wells could actually break suction and not deliver any water at all."

A less likely, but still potential, ramification of deep well withdrawals could be a deterioration in water quality. Some tests have indicated that water in the region's deep aquifers contains high levels of radium, barium, arsenic and salinity.

"There is salty water in the deep aquifers not too far south of the Chicago area," Meyer said. "The water in them is fresh for the time being, but if we pump a lot out, we could induce movement of salty water up into the Chicago area."

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