The underground aquifers Kendall County relies on for water are running dry. With the local water system needing replacement, officials have four options set for consideration this summer. This multi-part series, “Running Dry,” will examine those options and local municipalities quest for a new water supply. Stakes are high, with hundreds of millions of dollars and residents’ water bills hanging in the balance. Part 1 of a continuing series.
Montgomery, Oswego and Yorkville are running out of water. No one quite knows when it will happen. But at some point in the coming decades, the underground aquifers beneath the local subdivisions, churches, office buildings, schools and shopping centers in the three communities won’t have enough water to meet demand.
There still are many unknowns with this problem. But one thing is crystal clear: Local residents will eventually have to start paying up to three times more than their current water bills.
In this multi-part series, Record Newspapers will examine the different options available for the area’s long-term water supply and how local officials are tackling the problem.
Already, the endeavor has involved a high-powered Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, years worth of water studies and the rare collaboration of municipalities with Kendall County. All for good reason. Water flowing through the pipes is perhaps the most essential service local government provides to its residents. Furthermore, the impact of this decision will impact the pocketbooks of local taxpayers for generations to come.
“It’s our biggest challenge, it really is,” Yorkville Mayor John Purcell said in an interview. “This is absolutely the most critical decision we will make for the long-term good of our community.”
Falling water levels
Cities and villages in northeastern Illinois traditionally have relied on well water. The major municipalities in Kendall County are no different. But because of falling water levels in underground aquifers, many communities in recent decades have shifted to getting their water from Lake Michigan. That same problem has reached the doorstep of Montgomery, Oswego and Yorkville.
So far, the three municipalities are considering three options for a new water supply: the Fox River, the DuPage Water Commission and a future Joliet Water Commission set to receive water via Chicago. Officials in Montgomery have discussed additional plans to receive water from Aurora, adding a new, dark horse option to water negotiations.
The new alternatives are going to be more expensive than their current system. It’s just the way it’s going to be.”
— Jeffery Freeman, CEO of Engineering Enterprises
Each option comes with benefits and drawbacks from control, infrastructure and supply contracts. But officials have yet to share concrete cost estimates, preparing them for formal discussions on the water question set for this summer.
But in the end, the top engineering consultant for Montgomery and Yorkville said he thinks one option will eventually be the cheapest, although other aspects should be considered before making the final decision.
“There’s so many factors: the general cost, control and risk,” said Jeffrey Freeman, CEO of Engineering Enterprises Inc. “And each person might view them different as far as what’s important to them. But the new alternatives are going to be more expensive than their current system. It’s just the way it’s going to be.”
The Fox River
One of the options available to local decision-makers is the Fox River. Local, reliable and tested, getting water from the Fox River offers the most local control of any of the options. If selected, the three municipalities would form their own water commission, then construct and operate water intake and treatment facilities, back-up wells and water mains.
That local control brings drawbacks, however. For instance, running and maintaining a complex water system requires local money and local expertise. Up to seven new wells would need to be constructed, according to a presentation from EEI.
Using the Fox River as a water source is not new for nearby communities. Aurora and Elgin treat and distribute water from a tributary, having done so for many years. But operating a local water commission requires staff who, in turn, require salaries and insurance, costs that make their way onto local budgets.
DuPage Water Commission and Joliet
The DuPage Water Commission has supplied Lake Michigan water to communities in the western suburbs for decades. The state’s second-largest water system behind Chicago, it supplies 800,000 suburban residents with their daily water.
To connect Kendall County, this option involves 8 miles of proposed transmission mains that would run from Naperville to a connection in Oswego. Twenty-one miles of additional transmission mains then would bring the water to connections in Montgomery and Yorkville.
Although this option would allow communities to partner with a well-established water commission, it does dilute local control of the water supply. In addition, the DuPage Water Commission’s supply contract with Chicago expires in 2024, another factor for local decision-makers to weigh.
Additionally, if Kendall County communities join the commission, they would be subject to a board of commissioner selected by the DuPage County Board and the mayors and presidents of that county’s municipalities.
Unlike a local system on the Fox River, joining an outside water commission poses unique questions to decision-makers.
“In terms of governance, you’re looking at do we have a say in their rates?” said Oswego Village Administrator Dan Di Santo. “Do we have a say in how the system operates? Do we have a seat at the table? That kind of thing. So that’s definitely a consideration.”
It isn’t known how municipalities would join the DuPage Water Commission, either, Di Santo said, adding that the organization’s by-laws would have to be rewritten for Montgomery, Oswego and Yorkville to join.
On the other hand, the Joliet option would gives cities and villages a ground-floor entrance to a brand-new water commission.
Running out of water at a faster rate than Kendall County communities, Joliet voted in January to obtain water from Lake Michigan via the city of Chicago. Once connections are completed, Joliet plans to form its own water commission comprised of nearby municipalities fastened to Chicago for their water.
Should Kendall County municipalities join Joliet, a proposed 30 miles of transmissions mains would connect Joliet to a Chicago Department of Water Management pump near Oak Lawn, according to the EEI presentation. More mains would then need to be constructed to connect Joliet to more than a dozen potential municipalities, including Montgomery, Oswego and Yorkville.
Joliet also presents the most time sensitive option for Kendall County political leaders. Yorkville officials have said that Joliet expects a decision by the summer, with members in its water commission finalized at the end of this year and construction to take place between 2025 and 2030.
The Auroa option?
Adding to the question of local control is a reported offer by Aurora to provide Montgomery, Oswego and Yorkville with water. During a Village Board meeting in March, Montgomery officials and their engineering consultant discussed Aurora’s overtures, saying Aurora had excess water in their system they were willing to share with their neighbors.
Montgomery Village President Matt Brolley did not respond to requests for comment on his board’s discussion of the Aurora option.
With all four options, officials and their consultants have been hesitant to publicly share cost estimates. As city and village sessions move into the summer, officials said they will begin to veil “apples to apples” figures comparing the different proposals.
Yorkville Mayor John Purcell has said that financing the labor-intensive installation of pipelines and treatment centers under any of the proposals could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
But opportunities are out there for financing this mega-project. President Joe Biden is particularly keen on blanketing the country with billions of dollars in infrastructure funding, presenting near perfect timing for local decision-makers to secure big-dollar federal money. But as water supply discussions kick off in the coming months, officials need eyes and ears in the nation’s capital to identify potential coffers.
Next week: Enter Elevate Government Affairs, the federal lobbying firm hired by Montgomery, Oswego, Yorkville and Kendall County for the water supply project.
Correction: A previous version of this incorrectly named Jeffery Freeman of Engineering Enterprises. We regret the error.
Lucas Robinson covers politics, courts, schools and the pandemic in Kendall County and Yorkville for Shaw Media. His work has previously appeared in the Chicago Reader, the Buenos Aires Times, Open Secrets and USAToday. He grew up in Muncie, Indiana.