Planning well into the future

by Marie Donahue, MPC Research Assistant

City of Batavia Water Superintendant John Dillon examines data that reveals water levels at one of the city's deep aquifer wells have dropped about 200 feet in the last 30 years. Photo by Emily Cikanek

John Dillon knows when something is going down … especially when that something is groundwater levels. “The water level here in Batavia has dropped about 200 feet in the last 30 years. We cannot continue to lower down this pump another 200 or 300 feet … because guess what, we are going to be at the bottom of the hole, and there won’t be enough water to pump out of the ground,” explains Dillon, the City of Batavia’s water superintendent. Knowing where the water levels are today is critically important to planning for the future, which is one reason why Dillon and Batavia signed on immediately when the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) sent out a request to water practitioners in northeastern Illinois asking for help in measuring the levels of the region’s deep aquifer wells (generally those deeper than 500 feet).

“Groundwater does not have corporate boundaries like our cities,” Dillon explains, so any changes to the water table are a matter of concern across those government lines. By coordinating water level measurements across the region during Well Monitoring Weeks, Oct. 9-23, 2011, ISWS aimed to provide current, comprehensive data to help resource managers such as Dillon make informed decisions. ISWS simply doesn’t have the staff capacity to measure all the state’s wells themselves, so the cooperation of municipal, county, and private well operators is critical. In addition to Batavia, communities such as Aurora, DeKalb, Elgin, and Lake Zurich participated in Well Monitoring Weeks, and investor-owned water provider Illinois American Water also assessed water levels in the communities it serves.

Dillon saw the data collection event as the perfect opportunity to educate people about our region’s declining water tables and convince communities like Batavia, which risk reaching the limits of their existing deep wells, of the importance of water conservation and efficiency programs.

A City of Batavia water engineer tests the water level in a well by blowing compressed air down a tube, much like one would blow bubbles in a glass with a straw. Photo by Emily Cikanek

Even though the deep bedrock aquifer historically has provided Batavia and the rest of the region with a secure and plentiful water supply, Dillon warns that northeastern Illinois is using this water supply much faster than the aquifer can recharge itself. On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 18, he demonstrated the decline in the water table by measuring the depth to water in one of Batavia’s deep wells. To determine the depth, he attached an air hose to a gauge that is attached to a long tube deep inside the well—a process known as the submerged air line method. Once the water air line was pressurized and measured, only a quick calculation was needed to convert that measurement into the well’s water depth, using a conversion factor of 2.31 pounds of pressure for every square foot of water. At Batavia’s Well #5, for instance, Dillon measured 140 pounds of pressure, for a depth of about 323 feet of water above the well’s pump—showing a decline of roughly 60 feet from the previous measurement back in 2007.

Declining water levels in deep aquifers is concerning enough, but with the decline comes increased costs. The deeper the well and the lower the water pressure, the more energy is required to pump water out. Moreover, deeper water tends to be more likely to contain radium and other naturally-occurring but unsafe compounds that must be removed during treatment – a necessary, but not free, extra step in providing clean drinking water.

No community, even a savvy one like Batavia, can manage an aquifer alone, particularly when several communities and private well operations are tapping the same resource. That’s why a group of communities reliant on groundwater and the Fox River have formed the Northwest Water Planning Alliance (NWPA), of which Batavia is a member. This group, which represents five councils of government, five counties (DeKalb, Kane, Kendall, Lake and McHenry), and approximately 80 municipalities, encompassing over 1.3 million people, already has started to create long-term initiatives. Through its cooperative planning approach, the group hopes to provide the region with an economically and environmentally sustainable water supply for years to come. NWPA worked hand-in-hand with ISWS to coordinate Well Monitoring Weeks in the region, recognizing the data produced from the effort will be essential to sustainable water management at the local level.

Proactive steps and planning initiatives—like those being undertaken at ISWS, NWPA, and more locally in Batavia—are helping to ensure that our region continues to have a safe and reliable water supply well into the future. What’s not helping is the current status of ISWS’ budget for FY2012: $0. Last summer the Illinois Legislature failed to include the Prairie Research Institute, which houses ISWS, in the current fiscal year budget, and there is no guarantee when that funding will be restored. ISWS’ collection and analysis of current data on groundwater levels, stream flow, and other critical water resource is an inherent and necessary cost of providing Dillon and other local water managers with what they need to provide clean water for today and the future. We can’t manage what we don’t measure, but without action to address this budgeting oversight, it remains unclear whether ISWS will be able to perform those measurements.

One thing is certain: communities will not be able to continue with business-as-usual for long. “The only alternative towns are going to have as well levels keep declining is to drill deeper, go to another water source, or start conserving water or reusing water,” Dillon warns. Batavia is doing its part – it’s one of the only communities in Illinois to offer a rebate for purchases of WaterSense toilets, and it has progressive lawn watering and sod installation ordinances.

“We just can’t afford to waste groundwater today, we need to preserve it for the future too,” Dillon stresses. We can’t manage what we don’t measure, but thanks to ISWS, NWPA, and communities like Batavia, we’ll soon have a better data to make more informed, and sustainable, decisions.

The WOWW factor

500 to 800 feet

The range, in feet, that water levels have fallen in many deep wells from the start of the 19th century, when groundwater development started in the Chicago area, through today, according to the Illinois State Water Survey’s Center for Groundwater Science.


The amount of funding the Prairie Research Institute, the parent organization of the Illinois State Water Survey housed at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, was allocated by the State of Illinois in its FY2012 budget. Fortunately, communities like Batavia have stepped up to continue collecting the deep well level data instrumental in long-term, regional water supply planning.


The conversion factor used to convert feet of head (the common measurement of water depth), into pressure (measured in psi, or pounds per square inch). That is, once the pressure of a deep well is measured, this conversion factor can be used to calculate the water’s depth (psi X 2.31 = water column depth in feet).

80 – 5 – 5

Respectively, the numbers of municipalities, councils of government, and counties working together through the Northwest Water Planning Alliance to develop planning initiatives for the sustainable use of our groundwater and surface water systems. The NWPA represents upwards of 1.3 million people in northeastern Illinois.

Water Conservation Tips

Be savvy about landscaping choices and lawn watering. Use native plants in landscaping whenever possible, do not overwater your lawn, and make sure to adjust sprinklers so that you are only watering the lawn—not your sidewalk, driveway or house.

Collect rainwater by connecting a rain barrel to your downspout—then use it to water plants or other non-potable uses inside your home. This is no longer just a residential option—industry and business leaders have begun to reclaim otherwise wasted water. For example, the new headquarters of Panduit, based in Tinley Park, Ill., has a water reclamation system that collects rainwater for non-potable uses; the system is projected to save the building 910,000 gallons of water annually.

Monitor the water meter in your home or business, and check your water bill for unusually high use. If your residence is unmetered, ask the water department about installing a water meter. Your water meter and water bill are tools that can help you learn about your water usage and discover anything abnormal, like leaks—saving you, your town, and our region’s aquifer thousands of gallons of water.

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