Chicago plugging away at water efficiency

Worker fixing pipes

A worker fixes pipes in Chicagoland's ongoing quest for water efficiency.

This being the first story in the What Our Water’s Worth campaign, it makes sense to start where most of the region’s water starts … Chicago. Consider the numbers: Every day the City of Chicago Dept. of Water Management pumps approximately 850 million gallons of water out of Lake Michigan, by far the state’s largest withdrawal. They treat all of that water to potable standards. Two-thirds is used by Chicago residents and businesses, the rest pumped to 50 more towns, which in turn pump to an additional 75 communities. All told, about 5.5 million people (or 44 percent of Illinois’ population) ultimately rely on Lake Michigan and Chicago for their water.

“Chicago strives to ensure high-quality water for the whole region, but we’re also trying to have the most efficient systems possible,” said Peter Mulvaney, assistant commissioner, Chicago’s Dept. of Water Management. That struggle for efficiency – minimizing leaks, foreseeing main breaks, replacing older pipes – is not only daunting, but never-ending.  Chicago has nearly 4,500 miles of underground pipes just for transporting drinking water – roughly the distance from Boston to Anchorage. Add sewer pipes and suburban systems and you get a picture of maintenance demands.

“Leaks and breaks do happen. They will continue to happen,” said Mulvaney. “Some are the result of aging pipes, and some are unforeseen emergencies. We’ve got crews out working year-round, and yet we replace 40 miles of pipe per year. That’s 1 percent of the system.”

Leaks add up, in gallons and dollars. We pay to pump that water out of the lake, treat it, and pump it again.  That means electricity, labor, and a host of other costs – but no revenue if the water never gets where it’s supposed to go. “We have an aging system, but we’re managing it away from that.  We’re investing in leak detection technology, new pumps, and more comprehensive metering,” said Mulvaney.

While Chicago has taken steps to modernize its system, many people’s water then travels through at least one other municipality’s system before it gets anywhere near a faucet. That introduces such town-to-town variables as financial wherewithal to take on repairs, population density per mile of pipe, and even a commitment to efficiency. “We’re making these investments out of principle,“ said Mulvaney, “and so are some of our neighbors.” In fact, about a dozen other communities along Illinois’ lakefront, from Evanston to Waukegan, pump lake water to themselves and western neighbors, while 10 southern suburbs receive their Lake Michigan water from Hammond, Ind. “This is a truly regional system, and every community along the line has similar responsibilities … but you know what they say about the weakest link in the chain.”

Given our relative abundance of water, what’s water worth to our region? “Our abundant supply makes the value of water appear lower, but in fact it’s the same life-giving water as in more arid climates,” said Mulvaney. “Beyond that, we burn the same energy to pump it, and we buy the same concrete to fix the pipes. We’re fortunate to have ample supplies for the foreseeable future, but that’s not a license for waste.”

WOWW factors

130,000,000 gallons of water lost per day

The approximate total amount of Lake Michigan water lost daily (leaked, or otherwise unaccounted for) from public pipes throughout northeastern Illinois in 2005.

124,000,000 gallons of water pumped per day

For perspective, the approximate total daily water demand for Kane, Kendall and McHenry counties’ combined population (866,000) in 2005.

11 out of 204 Lake Michigan water recipients

In 2008, the number of Illinois’ Lake Michigan water recipients whose percentage of unaccounted for flow (UFF) exceeded Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources’ 8 percent standard. UFF is water that generates no revenue – it gets pumped out by the utility, but is never paid for.

Conservation tips

Pick up the phone. If you see standing water in the street, potholes full of water on a dry day, or fire hydrants that have been opened, call your local water utility.

Check your toilet. Toilets can leak tremendous amounts of water.  Water can leak straight from the tank into the bowl, then down the drain, without you ever noticing it.  Put some food coloring in your tank, wait about 10 minutes, and then check your bowl.  If it isn’t clear, you’ve got a leak. (For more tips on conserving water at your home or business, visit Alliance for Water Efficiency’s Resource Library.)

Check your house. Checking your home’s total water leakage is just as easy.  Check the reading on your water meter, then refrain from using any water (that means anything, be sure to turn off the ice machine in your fridge) for an hour.  If the number changes, you’ve got leaks.  Of course, you might have to first …

Get a meter. This mostly applies to residents of Chicago, where approximately 327,000 homes are without a water meter.  If you don’t have one, go to

This entry was posted in Water Stories and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Chicago plugging away at water efficiency

  1. Daniel Injerd says:

    Would be interested to learn how you estimate 130,000,000 gallons per day of leakage in the Lake Michigan service area.

    • Josh Ellis says:

      Thanks Dan, good catch. That should have said ‘lost’, and we’ve made that change. We used the 2005 LMO-2 forms for the entire service area, and combined the total maximum unavoidable loss (35.792 million gallons a day) with the total unaccounted for flow (93.923 million gallons a day).

  2. Kamal Rashid says:

    I live one block from the Indiana border in southeast Kankakee county my shallow well smell like petroleum and has a oli sheen on it, where can I get it tested? How much should it cost?

  3. Pingback: Navigating the Infrastructure Replacement Era — Metropolitan Planning Council

  4. Pingback: It’s the end of Chicago’s water rates as we know them, and I feel fine |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>