By Matt Nichols
While it is easy for Chicagoans to become complacent about our water supplies because we live within a stone’s throw of the Great Lakes – 20 percent of the planet’s readily available fresh water – many towns in Chicago’s collar counties do not have that luxury, as they must obtain their water elsewhere. Add in projections showing that some wells serving the south and west suburbs may be functionally obsolete within the next 30 years, and it is easy to understand the collective sense of urgency among mayors, county officials and public works experts across the region to reduce waste and promote conservation.
If you have been following What Our Water’s Worth, you have seen many mentions of the Northwest Water Planning Alliance (NWPA). NWPA brings together approximately 80 municipalities across 5 counties. What they have in common is a concern for their shared water sources – shallow and deep aquifers and the Fox River.
Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to attend an NWPA Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) meeting in Elgin. The NWPA is comprised of two main committees: the TAC, which convenes municipal and county engineers, surveyors, and public works experts; and the Executive Committee of mayors and county board presidents who ultimately vote on recommendations handed up from the technical folks. The TAC meeting lasted about two hours, and true to its name, it was pretty technical, but also informative.
A representative from the Illinois State Water Survey presented the latest drought data, including precipitation totals, stream flows, soil moisture, and agricultural impacts. The good news is that August has been significantly cooler and wetter than June and July. The bad news is that Illinois is still 8 to 14 inches behind where it should be for annual precipitation and corn yields are predicted to be 25 percent below normal.
Later in the meeting, the committee members debated changes to a draft lawn watering ordinance that will be sent to the Executive Committee and when approved eventually recommended for implementation in all 80 NWPA communities. The goal is to make outdoor sprinkler system use rules across the region more conservation-oriented to better manage peak demand, especially during dry summers like we have had this year. While deciding the exact wording of a municipal ordinance, such as which days and hours of the week residents are permitted to water their lawns using sprinkler systems, may seem mundane, these ostensibly minor details can make a big difference in water conservation.
This is especially true because decreasing the ratio between average and peak demand reduces strain on pumps and prevents spending on ever-bigger infrastructure to accommodate the peaks. Ordinances can help achieve those goals by requiring that homeowners only use sprinkler systems on alternate days or by allowing industrial users with automated systems to draw water during off-peak nighttime hours. Again, these small changes can make a big difference when multiplied over thousands of users in a system that pumps millions of gallons per day.
I went to the NWPA meeting expecting a technical – and frankly somewhat boring – affair. While some of the material presented was highly technical from a lay-person’s perspective, the process I observed was hardly boring when you consider how valuable it is for experts from some of the biggest cities in Illinois, like Aurora and Elgin, to the rapidly growing smaller cities in Kane and McHenry Counties, to come together to make proactive recommendations about a vital natural resource that impacts our health, recreation and livelihoods.