Precious Resource: Modernizing Our Use of Lake Michigan
Bring up Lake Michigan, and it may not be long before locals tell you it is one of the region’s defining and most beautiful resources. They are less likely to raise an important question: Are we most efficiently and cost-effectively managing this precious water for today and the future?
Photo by Erix Allix Rogers
An MPC study found Chicagoland loses enough Lake Michigan water every week to overflow the Willis Tower.
That is the question MPC’s work has been starting to answer in recent years. In 2013, MPC released Immeasurable Loss: Modernizing Lake Michigan Water Use, which explored what we know and don’t know about our management of Lake Michigan water. The report broke new ground by analyzing and publicly sharing data about Lake Michigan water use– and by suggesting better way to track and manage water use in Illinois.
Also in 2013, the Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources (IDNR) circulated a series of proposed modernization measures—many of them consistent with MPC’s proposals in Immeasurable Loss—to ensure communities that use Lake Michigan water make progress in preventing water loss. These changes are significant: Currently, Lake Michigan water lost in Chicagoland each week is enough to overflow the Willis Tower!
“Water infrastructure is typically out of sight and out of mind, and the longer our investment in water systems is put off, the greater that investment will have to be over time.”
—Mike Smyth, senior manager field services and production, Illinois American Water
This focus on Lake Michigan points to a growing priority. “Our work is about how we ensure that we manage our most valuable resources,” says Josh Ellis, an MPC program director who led the Immeasurable Loss research and subsequent advocacy. “One of our challenges is to change perceptions. Many people see the Lake and have the perception that we have an unlimited supply of water in the region. But Illinois is only allowed to take a specific amount of water from Lake Michigan each year.” One major issue, Ellis says, is how we talk about water use. For example, for many years, IDNR’s accounting system referred to water that communities leak or lose as “Maximum Unavoidable Leakage.” Look closely at this phrase, and you will find that it suggests we cannot do anything about the water we are losing. Immeasurable Loss recommends not only that local water users account for water loss differently, but also that this loss should be called “non-revenue water”: water we pay to process, but never appears on a bill.
“It’s always important to look at how we account for water usage and loss and we should always be looking to improve the accounting process.”
—Robyn Doescher, water utility manager for the Village of Glenview
Why are new rules and terminology important? Because defining how we use water and better ensuring accurate information can help municipalities make better decisions about managing their water—including investments in their water infrastructure. Other proposed improvements to the rules – also supported by MPC – promote water conservation through stronger guidance on lawn watering, plumbing and water pricing.
“It’s always important to look at how we account for water usage and loss and we should always be looking to improve the accounting process,” says Robyn Doescher, water utility manager for the Village of Glenview. “As an industry we need a standardized way we account for water usage and loss. When you’re trying to make a point to your board or community to upgrade infrastructure, you need to have consistency in reporting for comparison purposes.”
Doescher also emphasizes the importance of educating the public about water issues, as does Mike Smyth, senior manager field services and production, for the investor-owned Illinois American Water. “For many years, we’ve educated a generation to essentially undervalue water by not reflecting the true cost of water in water rates,” he says. “Water infrastructure is typically out of sight and out of mind, and the longer our investment in water systems is put off, the greater that investment will have to be over time. We need to make necessary investments in water infrastructure when it’s due. Prudent infrastructure investment will ensure an adequate water supply while helping to take care of water quality needs and public education.”