Lake Michigan water plan not likely just for Joliet

City says it’s in talks with 11 communities about regional water commission

Joliet plans to switch from the deep wells now providing water to the city to a Lake Michigan system by 2030.

The Joliet City Council vote committing to a deal with Chicago to buy Lake Michigan water by 2030 may have been historic, but it will be followed up quickly by the work needed to get it done.

“We’re full-speed ahead,” Utilities Director Allison Swisher said after the council vote on Thursday. “Now that we have this direction, we have timelines we have to meet.”

Swisher said she had just been reminded by one of the members of the consulting team working on the water project that they have three meetings scheduled next week.

Joliet's Director of Public Utilities Allison Swisher delivers a presentation to the city council highlighting the process used to vet potential water supply partners on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, at Joliet City Hall in Joliet, Ill.

One of the items high on the agenda is to work out agreements with 11 communities who have shown interest in joining Joliet in the formation of a regional water commission.

Joliet is on a schedule to decide by the end of 2021 how much capacity to build into the system, which will depend whether it serves Joliet alone or several communities.

Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said Friday that he wants to build a system that will go beyond serving the water needs of Joliet.

The approval of the Lake Michigan plan, he said, “put the city on a whole new plane in that we’re going to be a regional source of water.”

Joliet Mayor Bob O'Dekirk

O’Dekirk in 2017 initiated the search for a new water source after learning of forecasts that the aquifer now supplying Joliet’s well water would by 2030 be depleted to the point that it would no longer meet the city’s needs.

Joliet’s need may be more urgent than other towns because of its size, O’Dekirk said. But he said other towns are facing water problems in the future.

“We have the ability to do this,” O’Dekirk said. “We’re big enough. Everyone who is on this aquifer is going to face this.”

Other communities that have shown interest in joining Joliet in a regional system are Shorewood, Channahon, Minooka, Rockdale, Lockport, Romeoville, Lemont, Homer Glen, Yorkville, Oswego and Montgomery.

The project is estimated to cost between $592 million and $810 million in 2020 dollars depending on how much capacity is built into it. It’s likely to cost more when done. A projection that escalates costs based on the time of construction puts the final figures at between $725 million and $993 million.

Adding more communities to the system also could have the benefit of reducing water rates, which right now are expected to nearly triple in Joliet by 2030 to about $88 a month.

In addition to the deadline for a decision on capacity, the city has timelines for formation of a water commission, designing the new system, and building it on a schedule to deliver water by 2030.

Joliet will not be a passive partner with Chicago in the Lake Michigan water deal.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot fields questions about the City of Chicago's water treatment program on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, at Joliet City Hall in Joliet, Ill. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. made presentations at a special meeting of the Joliet City Council ahead of their decision on where to purchase water for the City of Joliet.

Lake Michigan water will be pumped from the Eugene Sawyer Purification Plant to a spot in Chicago where it will be transferred to a pumping station built and operated by Joliet. Joliet will then transport the water to its own treatment plant to be built on the East Side, where it will then be transferred throughout Joliet through a new distribution system yet to be built.

The interest in forming a regional water commission may have been a big factor in the council decision to choose Chicago as a water supplier instead of building a Joliet pipeline to Hammond, Indiana.

Such a commission would require state legislation, and O’Dekirk said Joliet had become aware in recent weeks that there was resistance to such a commission, which ultimately would bypass Chicago and benefit Hammond.

“Understandably, some of the people we would be asking for help may have felt passed over,” O’Dekirk said. “We are not in a position because of our timeline that we could get caught up in litigation.”