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Current shifting for Illinois water

Just two months in, 2009 has already proven to be a year marked by change and optimism.  In few areas of public policy is that more true than in the realm of water supply planning, conservation and management. 

The proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan currently includes provisions to increase federal investment in the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, which could provide approximately $340 million to Illinois for low-interest loans to local governments to improve sewer and water systems.  At the same time, new Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has stated his administration will work to coordinate environmental sustainability, government efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and economic growth. 

Illinois has begun the process of planning for a sustainable water supply.  A 2006 executive order called for the creation of a statewide framework for regional water supply planning, as well as the establishment of two pilot regional planning groups.   Those groups – the East Central Regional Water Supply Planning Committee and Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Supply Planning Group – have since studied the hydrology of their respective regions, explored potential conservation strategies to incorporate in final plans, and perhaps most importantly, commissioned demand and supply studies to inform future decisions.  Conservative estimates indicate 51 percent and 35.8 percent increases in water withdrawals in East Central and Northeastern Illinois, respectively, between 2005 and 2050 (based on baseline conditions, omitting water used in power production).

However, the end game remains unclear.  More regional planning groups must be established, funding and technical assistance from the state need to be consistent, and statewide sustainability goals need to be established so that regional plans can pursue them in contextually specific ways.

As MPC and Openlands prepare their third set of policy recommendations to shape Illinois’ water future – following on Changing Course in 2004 and Troubled Waters in 2006 – project staff from both organizations met with members of Quinn’s environmental team to recommend a series of action steps that will move Illinois toward a sound water future.  These steps will form the backbone of the forthcoming recommendations (expected in early May):

·        Dedicate sufficient funding from the General Revenue Fund or user fees to support needed research, complete the statewide water supply planning process and begin to implement the plans that have been created at the regional level.  Water supply management is an integral aspect of good governance.  Funding to support the Ill. State Water Survey, Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources, and regional planning groups must be dependably provided on a consistent annual basis. 

·        Establish at least two new regional planning groups in 2010, and two more in 2011.  In order to create a statewide water supply plan – one that is informed and supported by stakeholders – more regional planning efforts must get underway in the near future.  The experiences of the two existing groups will be highly instructive, and can be used to create a template for future efforts.

·         Establish state goals for water conservation and efficiency, consistent with the requirements of the Great Lakes Compact, for regional planning groups to meet in contextually specific ways.  State, regional and local efforts to meet Compact requirements need to be coordinated in order to eliminate redundancy, confusion and conflict.  The conservation requirement would pervade agricultural policies, pricing systems for public water supplies, construction practices, open space and watershed protection, urban design, and public education – but also guide regional planning and local implementation.

·        Aim for comprehensive water use reporting by 2012.  In Illinois, usage reporting is voluntary, which means that data on water supply and demand is incomplete.  Without current, comprehensive data, we cannot accurately project future water availability or assess the efficacy of conservation efforts.

·        Price water for conservation.  Current water rates in many Illinois communities do not reflect the true cost associated with providing water service. If rates reflect all costs of providing safe drinking water – usage research, planning, expanding water treatment plants, maintaining existing infrastructure, chemicals, and labor – consumers would begin to adjust their usage accordingly.  The state should create incentives to induce a shift to conservation pricing, including support for systems that comprehensively deploy real-time water meters. 

·        Reinvest in and rethink water infrastructure.  Much of Illinois’ water infrastructure is badly in need of repair, modernization, or replacement.  As Illinois plans its own capital spending and use of the federal economic recovery package, investment in water-related infrastructure should be a priority.   However, if sustainability truly is the goal, then the definition of infrastructure also must include metering and measurement systems, which can induce conservation, as well as “green” infrastructure (i.e. permeable paving and bioswales), which often has a competitive cost advantage over “grey” infrastructure (i.e. treatment plants and stormwater drains). 

MPC, working in partnership with Openlands, has been a vocal and adamant supporter of water supply planning for many years, and is eager to work with the State of Illinois on this and other issues.  With some foresight and effort, 2009 will be the year that Illinois finally establishes a statewide framework for regional water supply planning, and one large step toward a wiser, wetter future.

If you have any questions about MPC's water supply work, or would like to support future efforts, please contact Josh Ellis at jellis@metroplanning.org or (312) 863-6045.

 

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For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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