Despite the ample rains – and chronic flooding – that frequently impact our region, many people may be surprised to learn there is actually a shortage of water threatening a significant portion of northeastern Illinois.
Many communities in the southern and western Chicago metropolitan area depend on deep sandstone aquifers – not Lake Michigan – for their drinking water. In fact, about 20 percent of northeastern Illinois’ population relies on a water source other than Lake Michigan, and about 78 percent of that population relies solely on groundwater.
However, population growth, environmental stress and over-pumping are all pushing suburban Chicago’s sandstone aquifers to the brink.
Cumulative long-term water withdrawals have already reduced groundwater levels by more than 900 feet in portions of Will County, and according to the Illinois State Water Survey, the latest monitoring reports state that drawdown on our deep aquifers must be reduced to half of what it is today in order to sustain our deep aquifers into the foreseeable future.
If we do not take action, some groundwater-dependent community and industrial wells are predicted to be unusable in as little as 15 years, with many more wells running the risk of going dry by 2050.
Preserving the sandstone aquifers is critical because they’re our insurance policy against a future water disaster.
These aquifers provide emergency drinking water supply when a drought happens, or an algae bloom occurs (which occurred on the Fox River this summer) that impact communities, including Elgin and Aurora, which have a combined population of over 310,000 people.
Unless we act today to sustain our deep aquifers, we put our children – and their children – at great risk.
Fortunately, some communities are actively working to identify and develop alternative drinking water sources other than the deep aquifer. Elgin and Aurora began significant reductions of sandstone aquifer dependence more than 20 years ago by using the Fox River.
And recently other communities are exploring how to collectively switch to alternative supply sources. This is a hopeful sign, as it can take at least 10 years to complete such a project. But we need more communities engaged and planning together now.
The viability of the deep aquifer for everyone – both residents and industries – is at risk. The time to act collectively is now.
What can you do to help to assure a sustainable water supply for the future?
1. Make sure your community has a strong outdoor watering ordinance in place to encourage conservation – The Northwest Water Planning Alliance has created a sample ordinance for communities to use.
Studies show that most homeowners apply twice as much water as required to maintain their lawns – given our dwindling groundwater resources – I think we can all agree it makes little sense to needlessly overuse our remaining drinking water for outdoor irrigation purposes.
2. For communities on groundwater, ask your elected officials how the community is proactively planning to meet its drinking water needs 15 to 20 years from now, and encourage your community leaders to get involved in regional water supply planning efforts such as the Northwest Water Planning Alliance.
3. Educate yourself. Get in the know with resources such as the Metropolitan Planning Council’s water supply action agenda, which tells a powerful story about what northeastern Illinois’ drinking water challenges are, and what solutions are available for us.
We all have a part to play to ensure our region’s drinking water sources remain plentiful and viable for all communities, now and into the future. Join us.
Tom Weisner is a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Planning Council. He served as mayor of Aurora from 2005 to ’16.