The costs of clean water

Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner

Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner explains how his city manages its water supply costs, while achieving Illinois’ best-tasting water. / Photo by Emily Cikanek

By Nick Bastis

Whether chocolate, wine or water, many people think great taste and low cost are trade-offs.  That is why so many people are willing to pay approximately 1,000 times more for bottled water than for tap water. But City of Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner and Superintendent of Water Production Dave Schumacher don’t buy it.  Over the past five years, Aurora has been reducing the cost of its water services while winning awards for customer satisfaction.  “Our water has been named Illinois’ best tasting water three times in the last five years,” said Weisner, “and we’re achieving that level of satisfaction while trying to control costs, increase efficiency, and protect the environment… that’s no small task.”

Nor is it a simple one.  Most communities in the Chicago region rely on a single water source—Lake Michigan—greatly streamlining water treatment and management.  But Aurora draws its public supply from deep aquifers and the Fox River, along with a few shallow wells.  Each source has unique quality characteristics and pumping demands, and as a result, varying costs. Communities with a mix of water sources, like Aurora, Elgin, Ill.Kankakee, Ill., and Lake Station, Ind., are faced with a balancing act—protect each water source for the future, while minimizing costs today.

“Relying just on well water really hits the aquifers hard,” said Schumacher. “So, since 1992, Aurora has also been treating water from the Fox River.”  Adding river water to the mix reduces strain on deep aquifers, which recharge very slowly. Pumping water from deep aquifers is also extremely energy intensive.  As energy costs increase, so does the cost of deep aquifer water.

Aurora is working to balance these competing costs for water services, while also pursuing other sustainability goals. “We’ve managed to go from about a 50-50 balance to actually using Fox River water for about 63 percent of our total,” explained Weisner. “This has helped us tremendously in two ways: we’re putting a lot less pressure on the very precious deep aquifers, and it has reduced the amount of energy we use pumping from deep wells.  But nothing’s perfect. River water has similar trade-offs.”

The addition of river water added flexibility, but also complexity.  Pumping river water uses less energy than pumping from deep aquifers, which helps Aurora save on electrical expenses and reduce carbon emissions, another of Aurora’s goals. City staff estimates monthly energy bill savings of about $20,000. However, river water is more costly to treat than deep aquifer water. The water enters the treatment facility filled with particulates and suspended solids, requiring more chemicals during treatment. Costs even depend on the weather. “We can take more river water when water quality allows, but when there is a lot of rain it can be more difficult to treat because of the increased suspended solids,” said Schumacher. Also, during drought conditions algae blooms can occur on the river which can lead to very difficult filtering conditions.

Shallow aquifers, a small part of Aurora’s mix, require less energy for pumping and recharge faster than deep wells, but are more susceptible to contamination from things like road salt in stormwater runoff, and can run low rapidly during dry weather.  As a result, they require more operational attention.

Further complications could occur when river water withdrawals affect adjacent shallow wells and wetlands, or when reduced river levels affect flora and fauna.  Both the Illinois State Water Survey and Water 2050, northeastern Illinois’ regional water supply plan, say the Fox River should be able to supply more water for public uses in the future before negatively impacting natural systems or shallow aquifers, but that requires vigilant monitoring, another cost.

The cost of water is really the cost of energy, labor, pipes, chemicals, monitoring, and more.  Each source has different costs, and while they may change every day, the typical person’s interaction with Aurora’s water does not—turn the tap, fill the glass, drink.  Nobody is happy when costs increase for a product that stays the same.  While the City of Aurora cannot control every cost, it constantly seeks to manage them where possible, and that requires innovation.  “We’re looking into using deep well water for a water-source heat pump climate control system at the water treatment plant,” explained Schumacher. “Water from that depth remains a steady 55 degrees, can be used for summer cooling and winter heating and then treated and distributed as potable water. The City will get two uses from the same water. We are always looking for ways to reduce our energy use and ultimately the cost of producing water.”

That’s good news for everyone accustomed to the high quality and reasonable cost of Aurora’s award-winning water today and everyone expecting to have the same tomorrow.

WOWW factors

66,000

Acres of protected land, out of 1,101,000 acres, within the Illinois portion of the Fox River watershed

44.7%

Average water and wastewater systems’ share of total municipal energy use, for six Chicago suburbs in 2006

$20,000

Estimated average monthly savings experienced by Aurora from increasing share of Fox water.

Conservation tips

  • Think before you flush, Part 1: A family of four switching to a .28 gallons per flush WaterSense toilet can save 17,000 gallons of water per year.
  • Think before you flush, Part 2: Pharmaceuticals are not removed during waste water treatment.  Any medicine you flush down the toilet could end up in a waterway, harming wildlife and downstream water quality. Return expired drugs to a pharmacist or official disposal site, like the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s Medication Take-Back Program for City of Aurora residents.
  • Commit to the tap: If you’re hosting a meeting or party, first provide tap water in pitchers, but then talk with people about the water, if only for a few seconds. Raising awareness is the first step toward investment and stewardship.

Featured resources

Watershed Planning in the Fox River Basin, Fox River Ecosystem Partnership, 2010

Effects of Future Water Demands and Climate Change on Fox River Water Availability, Illinois State Water Survey, 2008

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