Government

Joliet takes a deep dive into Lake Michigan water project

City plans for future water system, waits to hear if neighbors will join in

Joliet water tower along Hennepin Drive. A project is underway that will bring Lake Michigan water to Joliet by 2030. Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022 in Joliet.

Joliet is making progress on a water system designed to serve the city at least until its population reaches 400,000, the City Council was told Thursday,

The council met in its first water workshop meeting since it agreed a year ago to a project that will bring Lake Michigan water to Joliet from the city of Chicago.

The 400,000 figure is Joliet’s projected population in 100 years.

“We should keep in mind that the system is going to be designed with expansion in mind,” Utilities Director Allison Swisher told the council.

Director of Public Utilities Allison Swisher updates the Joliet City Council on the project to bring Lake Michigan water to Joliet by 2030. Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022 in Joliet.

What’s more pressing in the near future are decisions being made in the next month by neighboring communities that will determine the scope of a regional water commission that would share costs and benefits of the Lake Michigan water project.

“We have demonstrated that the more communities that participate the greater the benefits for all in the system,” Swisher said.

Six municipalities will decide by Feb. 28 whether to join Joliet in forming the regional water commission. They are Crest Hill, Shorewood, Channahon, Minooka, Romeoville and Lemont.

The costs

The project is estimated to cost between $592 million and $810 million. Joliet’s monthly water rates are expected to nearly triple to $88 by 2030, in part to pay for it.

But the cost of water is rising everywhere, and the capacity of aquifers to continue to supply reliable groundwater is a growing issue. Advocates for Lake Michigan water view the regional project as the best option.

Joliet water tower along Hennepin Drive. A project is underway that will bring Lake Michigan water to Joliet by 2030. Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022 in Joliet.

The deep water aquifer that supplies Joliet with water is projected to no longer meet the city’s peak demand by 2030.

“Later this year, we’ll have to look at how we meet some of these future needs and still keep water affordable in the community,” Joe Johnson, a consulting engineer on the project, told the council.

Joe Johnson, of Stantec, sits in on the Joliet City Council meeting on the project to bring Lake Michigan water to Joliet by 2030. Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022 in Joliet.

By November, the council will vote on whether to increase water rates for the next few years and by how much.

In November, Council member Cesar Guerrero joined a group of demonstrators outside City Hall who called on the city to raise water rates on big warehouses and other businesses to offset the future costs to residents.

Johnson told the council that city water rates now are structured so that business users pay more than residents. Residents use 64% of the water and pay 59% of the costs, he said. Nonresidential customers use 29% of the water and pay 36% of the costs.

The commission

The regional water commission would offset the costs of Lake Michigan water for its members by spreading the costs of infrastructure and future operations among the members.

A preliminary agreement among potential members would apportion costs based on the capacity built into the system for each community. Communities would pay based on how much water they expect to use.

Joliet’s capacity now is at 52% of the system, consulting engineer Theresa O’Grady told the council. But that capacity is expected to increase to 60% because of future growth in the city.

Theresa O'Grady, of Crawford, Murphy and Tilly, sits in on the Joliet City Council meeting on the project to bring Lake Michigan water to Joliet by 2030. Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022 in Joliet.

The water system will be designed to accommodate future capacity for its members.

Construction

Preliminary design of the system began in 2021. Final design will start this year to be completed in 2024.

Construction is planned to start in 2024 with a timetable that will deliver Lake Michigan water to Joliet by May 2030.

Joliet is acting as project manager in the commission to control the construction timetable and ensure the system is completed by 2030, Swisher said.

Noting that Joliet has contemplated alternatives to its groundwater system since the 1980s, Swisher told the council, “I know this idea has started and stopped a number of times. I’m perfectly confident that this time it’s going to happen.”