Glass Half Full

Solutions to Northeastern Illinois’ Water Supply Challenges

Wikimedia user Biswarup Ganguly (CC)

Water. H2O. Most of us in northeastern Illinois don’t pay much attention to our drinking water. We mindlessly turn on faucets dozens of times a day without pausing to consider questions that millions of people around the world worry about on a regular basis: Do we have enough? Is it clean? Will it endure?

We are lucky: In northeastern Illinois, we generally enjoy an ample amount of water thanks to our location along the shores of a Great Lake. But that good fortune has lulled us into complacency, and our drinking water systems have been neglected. Our proverbial glass is half empty.

This is the Metropolitan Planning Council’s bid to raise awareness, and our call to action on addressing water supply issues in our region. We are ready to form stronger partnerships with elected officials, utility managers and operators, funders, private organizations, nonprofits and others to advance a 10-point action agenda by 2021.

What’s at stake? Public health and safety risks, including contamination due to 100-year-old pipes and aging water treatment systems. Local and regional resiliency during times of crisis. New jobs and regional economic growth, since every company needs water—and some more than others. Vital ecosystems. Municipalities and their residents hard-pressed to afford the escalating costs to collect, treat and deliver drinking water. And, yes, some communities running out of water within 15 years.

The Metropolitan Planning Council is dedicated to ensuring a resilient, thriving, equitable and healthy region. While our water supply issues are significant, they are fixable. We invite you to join us in implementing this 10-point action agenda, to ensure our region’s glass remains full.

Half empty

Drinking water issues facing northeastern Illinois

Emily Cikanek

The top three drinking water issues we face as a region are encapsulated in the following three questions: Do we have enough? Is it clean? Will the system endure? The answer to all three questions will be a stark “no” if we do not take coordinated action.

What’s more, the system of infrastructure, institutions and regulations that bring water from the lake, rivers and underground aquifers to your tap is complicated and fragmented. Consumers are buffered from these complexities, and therefore are disconnected from understanding why we need to invest in this critical service that enables us to drink, bathe and indeed survive. Read on to learn why collective action now—versus when a crisis hits—is imperative.

Fragmented system, disconnected users

Did you know more than 400 community water supply systems operate in northeastern Illinois? Yes—over 400—and each individual utility produces or purchases drinking water, and distributes it through a system of pipes and pumps they maintain. Most of these utilities are owned and managed by a municipality, which means decisions about water utility operations, infrastructure investment, future planning and service rates are made at the local level by elected officials who may or may not have prior expertise in managing a water utility.

To further exacerbate this complexity, northeastern Illinois does not have a well-followed system for regularly tracking water usage from each utility. As a result, we lack a big picture understanding of current regional demand for drinking water. While communities that use Lake Michigan water must report usage and infrastructure conditions, the rest of the region—particularly those communities who are facing water shortages—are not held to the same standard. Because of these factors, our region is extremely fragmented in our approach to managing a vital resource, which by its very nature is regional and shared. We need more coordinated, regional water supply planning.

Another fundamental challenge is that we as consumers are very disconnected from the complex system that provides us with water to drink, bathe and survive. Consider this: Do you know where your water is treated? Do you know your water rate? Have you ever tracked how much water you used in one day? Most people in our region would answer “no” to these questions.

Our region’s collective lack of awareness about our drinking water may stem from historically ample supplies of water, the buried nature of water infrastructure, and the low, subsidized costs we have enjoyed for water service. We haven’t needed to give a second thought to the infrastructure and operations it takes to deliver water to our homes and businesses, so we make perplexing and wasteful decisions, such as treating water to drinkable standards and then using it to water lawns or support industrial processes such as heating and cooling.

Flickr user Cary Bass-Deschenes (CC)

Conditions related to our drinking water have changed. Our region faces near-term water supply constraints, pollution and crumbling infrastructure. How we answer the following three questions in 10 years depends entirely on our collective actions today.


Do we have enough?

The Ill. State Water Survey, which has been monitoring and modeling Illinois’ water resources for more than a century, released a seminal report in fall 2015 about the water levels in wells throughout northern Illinois. The report sounded an alarm about how much groundwater we really have:

  • Our deep sandstone aquifers are being depleted unsustainably.
  • High-capacity wells could be unusable in as little as 15 years.
  • Many more wells could be dry by 2050.

If current practices continue, some community and industrial wells could be unusable within 15 years, and even more will be at risk by 2050.

Why does this matter? About 31 percent of northeastern Illinois’ population—including outer ring suburbs of Chicago—rely on water sources other than Lake Michigan. About 17% of them rely solely on groundwater, and to serve them, some 90 million gallons per day are being withdrawn from the deep sandstone aquifers—a withdrawal rate at least twice as high as the Ill. State Water Survey estimates to be sustainable for future use of these sources. Some areas are already experiencing significant depletion and some shallower, private wells are already going dry. If current practices continue, some community and industrial wells could be unusable within 15 years, and even more will be at risk by 2050.

Ill. State Water Survey

Some might think the easy answer to this issue is for more communities to tap into Lake Michigan. However, Illinois’ allotted diversion of Lake Michigan water is limited by a U.S. Supreme Court decree. So while we may think our region enjoys an unlimited amount of fresh water, that is not true.

This growing issue could negatively affect the regional economy, costing local communities jobs if businesses relocate due to water shortage concerns. We can prevent this if current groundwater users in our region—including municipalities, self-supplied commercial and industrial facilities and irrigators—plan and work together. Best practices in water reporting, plumbing codes, demand management and water reuse must become well known and widely adopted.


Is it clean?

Northeastern Illinois’ water supply faces increasing pollution from a variety of sources, including:

  • chlorides from salting our roads and sidewalks;
  • fertilizers from lawns and agriculture;
  • organic (human waste) and inorganic matter (such as pharmaceuticals) from sewer overflows;
  • lead from old or faulty fixtures or pipes; and
  • toxins from industrial processes

Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) are standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for drinking water quality. An MCL is the legal threshold limit on the amount of a substance that is allowed in public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Clean water is obviously critical to our health and well-being. It is also important to note that increases in water pollution in our local water sources—lakes, rivers and underground aquifers—ultimately raise the cost of providing drinking water. The more pollution we have in our drinking water sources, the higher our water rates will be in the future, because additional filtration and treatment processes are required to ensure that water is safe for human consumption.

Increasingly, water pollution is an issue in northeastern Illinois. Just one example: In March 2016, the Illinois State Water Survey released a report on the shallow groundwater quality in Kane County. The greatest concern is chloride levels: Two-thirds of water samples taken from eastern Kane County between 2003 and 2015 had chloride concentrations above the secondary maximum contaminant level. Road salt is one of the most likely sources of this contamination. The unfortunate results may be increased water treatment costs, as well as corrosion of pipes in homes and industrial plants, as chloride is highly caustic.

What can we do to reduce pollution? We can embrace best management practices such as sensible salting, which will help reduce the amount of chlorides in our water sources; reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in our water by supporting the Ill. Environmental Protection Agency’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy; and upgrade our stormwater infrastructure to reduce sewer overflows into our water sources.

Road salt

Wikimedia user Stolbovsky (CC)

Road salt


Will the system endure?

Flickr user Erin Nekervis (CC)

In 2008, this stretch of Montrose Avenue on Chicago's North Side collapsed due to a water main break.

Much of northeastern Illinois’ water infrastructure—think treatment plants, pumps and pipes—built to collect, treat and deliver drinking water to our homes and businesses 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is coming to the end of its useful life. Plainly put, the infrastructure is old—anywhere from 50 to 100 years old—and in dire need of repair and replacement to ensure safe and reliable service to your home and business in the future. It is fact, not hyperbole, to say that if we fail to act, we face catastrophes such as water main breaks, collapsing infrastructure and drinking water contamination.

What’s more, our pipe network is buried out-of-sight, so it is also out-of-mind for most of us, contributing to our disconnect from what it takes to maintain it. Practically speaking, it’s also challenging to know the condition of buried pipes—but we know it’s not a pretty picture: Best-guess estimates suggest we lose 26 billion gallons each year due to deteriorating infrastructure—enough water to fill more than one Willis Tower every week. Without a clear understanding of our water infrastructure conditions, we’ll continue to see utilities across northeastern Illinois spend money on drinking water that never even gets to consumers.

1.3 Willis Towers of water are lost each week in northeastern Illinois

Addressing our aging water infrastructure in Illinois is estimated to cost around $21.5 billion through 2030. Our local water utilities need viable funding and financing streams in order to make this huge investment. We need to explore economies of scale and service sharing between utilities. At the same time, equitable water rate practices need to be employed to ensure everyone in our communities has access to clean drinking water. Now more than ever, industry standards in auditing and reporting the condition of our systems, establishing robust asset management programs and identifying investment needs are imperative.

Half full

Ten ideas to solve our water supply challenges

The motivating news is that we can work together to take actions that solve northeastern Illinois’ water supply issues. It will take strong leadership from community officials to marshal the political will to head off these crises, and instead create a sustainable future for our region where well managed water service is recognized as the economic driver and quality of life cornerstone that it is. By forming strong partnerships across municipal and utility boundaries, our region can embrace collaboration, implement proven policy measures, conduct forward-thinking planning and better manage our shared drinking water resources.

MPC’s Role

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has worked closely with a range of partners for more than 10 years, assisting local communities and regional and state decision-makers in making the most productive use of our water through sensible planning, financing and policies. While our region has considerable water assets, we risk mismanaging these assets and jeopardizing community and economic growth unless we act collectively to address pressing issues. We are committed to supporting communities and their water utilities by conducting research, developing tools, fostering opportunities for ongoing regional collaboration and joint action, and advocating for the use of best management practices in drinking water management.

Specifically, between now and 2021, MPC will focus on the following 10 actions to help ensure northeastern Illinois’ drinking glass remains full. These ideas are not an exhaustive list of what needs to be done in the region, but rather what MPC and its strategic partners can help achieve given our independent role and demonstrated expertise.

  • Create a guide for elected officials on managing local water services

    Given that many elected officials come into office without prior experience running a water utility, there is a need to support leaders in understanding key aspects of water management and critical questions to discuss with professional water managers, including: what water service trends are important today, what they need to know and do to best serve their communities, and how they can support their utility managers and operators. The guide, which will be created with input from many different stakeholders, will focus specifically on issues and solutions for water resource management in northeastern Illinois. The ultimate goal is to help elected officials understand their role in sustainably planning and managing water resources for the region.

  • Improve state funding stream for water infrastructure improvements

    The State Revolving Fund (SRF) is a low-interest loan program designed to support water service infrastructure repair and replacement. The Ill. Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) administers the SRF, and asked MPC to produce recommendations for how to streamline the application and loan process for communities. MPC will continue to partner with IEPA to implement our 2015 recommendations, which will improve utilization of this critical funding source for capital improvement projects in water infrastructure.

  • Explore opportunities for cost savings in water services

    With more than 400 community water supply systems operating in northeastern Illinois, it is important that municipalities explore how service sharing, utility combining or other means of collaboration can reduce costs for communities and customers. MPC will research trailblazing practices and explore opportunities to foster community collaboration on reducing water service costs.

  • Analyze and test equitable rate structures

    The water industry is a rising cost sector. As water rates rise, those with the least amount of resources will be hardest hit unless we implement equitable rate structures. With its partners, MPC will research current affordability issues and responses via progressive and equitable rate setting for northeastern Illinois. Based on findings, MPC will partner with select communities interested in implementing equity practices in water rates to ensure everyone in their community can continue to thrive.

  • Drive adoption of best practices in water reporting and sensible salting

    Some communities in northeastern Illinois do not regularly report their water usage and infrastructure conditions. Likewise, many communities have yet to adopt sensible salting practices to reduce unnecessary amounts of chlorides from contaminating our drinking water sources. MPC will continue its partnerships with regional groups and stakeholders to drive adoption of sensible solutions to improve regional water data and reduce pollution.

  • Develop and implement a coordinated plan for Fox River water use

    For communities facing water supply shortages due to groundwater depletion, exploring alternative water sources, such as the Fox River, is critical. Along with key regional partners, MPC will help scope and prepare a Fox River water use plan. Collaborative planning will help ensure sustainable and equitable water supply for everyone in the region, now and in the future.

  • Research strategies and opportunities for matching the right water to the right use

    Using treated drinking water for irrigation, or industrial heating and cooling makes little sense. A smarter idea is to conserve drinking water and capitalize on other water sources to drive regional economic development. We urgently need an overall strategy to innovate on how we think about what type of water is right for various uses, and how to either move the right water to the right place, or spur economic development where the right water is available. MPC and its partners will explore the feasibility and value of reusing water—be it rain water or effluent—to meet the region’s water demand.

  • Update the Ill. Plumbing Code

    As it is currently written, the Illinois Plumbing Code does not allow water reuse. In order to pursue development that deploys reused water, projects must seek a variance from the code. This is costly for everyone involved, and threatens our region’s ability to be resilient, adaptive and efficient in our management of water resources. With other lead partners, MPC will support the update of our state’s plumbing code to allow the region to deploy modern water reuse strategies while building a market for nearby manufacturers of innovative technologies.

  • Establish dedicated revenue stream for regional water supply planning

    Regional water supply planning is not funded and therefore lacks consistency in northeastern Illinois. Given the urgent water supply issues we face, this is not acceptable for our communities. MPC will work with a host of partners and stakeholders to establish a dedicated revenue stream for regional water supply planning in northeastern Illinois, to improve how our region works together to manage our shared and finite water resources.

  • Require infrastructure condition reporting

    Across the country, many states have adopted universal auditing and reporting procedures to assess water infrastructure conditions, and in particular, to monitor where leaks are occurring. This reporting allows individual utilities, regions and states to better understand their infrastructure investment needs, and identify where lost revenue is occurring due to old, leaking pipes. MPC will explore opportunities at the regional or state scale for implementing universal reporting of infrastructure conditions to help identify and prioritize investments in our water systems.

Your role

An invitation

Most people in northeastern Illinois have no idea that water supply issues lurk just below the surface. They trust that work is being done to protect and manage this incredible resource, and to head off crisis before it happens.

To live up to that expectation, we need to address a number of issues today, not in the future when a crisis hits and the costs are even greater. It will take a team effort, but by collaborating regionally and acting locally and boldly, we can advance bite-size solutions to these issues.

MPC invites you to join us in achieving this 10-point action agenda. We also encourage you to consider the role you and your organization can play in keeping northeastern Illinois’ drinking water a regional asset.

  • Elected officials What will you do as a leader to ensure your community has safe and reliable drinking water now and into the future?
  • Utility managers or operators What additional best practices are you willing to implement to provide sustainable drinking water service for the communities you serve?
  • Funders Which of the above actions resonate with the mission of your organization where you can help jump start action in our region on drinking water issues?
  • Non-government organizations Which of the above actions align with your organization’s expertise and interest?
  • Government agencies What flexibility and support can you give to assist the region in working collaboratively?
  • Private businesses What expertise and resources can you provide to help achieve the above initiatives, which will benefit regional competitiveness?
  • Residents of northeastern Illinois How will you choose to value drinking water going forward? How can your community support our region’s leaders in working together?

We all want to make sure northeastern Illinois is well prepared for the future. Safe, ample and affordable drinking water is a key foundation for livability, prosperity and quality of life. The Metropolitan Planning Council and its partners will deepen and focus their work on these issues in the coming years, and we invite you to join us. Help us ensure a resilient, thriving and healthy region that respects and enjoys the water wealth we are so fortunate to have.


Contact Us

If these issues resonate with you, and you are interested in getting involved with regional discussions and activities related to water supply planning and management, please contact Danielle Gallet: dgallet@metroplanning.org for more information and resources. Thank you.

Metropolitan Planning Council 140 S. Dearborn St.
Suite 1400
Chicago, Ill. 60603
P 312 922 5616 F 312 922 5619 info@metroplanning.org
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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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