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Water supply shouldn’t be a buzzer beater issue

Michael Jordan, who was all over the news recently before his Hall of Fame induction on Sept. 11, provides the Chicago region with an invaluable cautionary tale for our water supply issues (which are also all over the news these days: check out Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona professor, who was in the Washington Post on Aug. 23 and on the Daily Show before that).

MJ was always the insurance policy—“Down 10 with a minute on the clock?  It’ll be OK, we’ve got Michael. Just give him the ball.” It usually worked, and then suddenly it didn’t. He retired, and neither the Bulls nor the fans were prepared. Since his retirement, the Bulls have been… less than great.   

We tend to think about Lake Michigan the same way—“Aging infrastructure? Aquifers running dry? Population growth? Climate change? It’ll be OK, we’ve got Lake Michigan. We’ll just pump more water.”

The response to that is a bit tricky. Today, pockets of northeastern Illinois are facing real water scarcity issues. The groundwater sources many suburban communities rely on are drying up, and unlikely to refill any time soon. Recent data show that northeastern Illinois uses a little less than 300 million gallons of groundwater (mgd) a day. We can improve efficiency of use and conservation, or look for a new supply, or some mixture of the two.

In 2005 (the most recent assessment) we used approximately 85% of the Lake Michigan water we’re allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the rest stays in the lake. In theory, if we needed more water, we could pump out our remaining 15%—which is a little more than 300 mgd a day. 

So we’re good, right? That’s like MJ scoring 12 when he only needed 10.

Problem is, demand for water is growing, but supplies are not. As important, and at the heart of the solution, is that we waste a lot of water. Leaky water mains, sprinklers running in the rain, stormwater runoff, 5 gallon toilet tanks, homes without water meters—it all adds up to trouble. And as the region grows (the Chicago region is expected to add 3.3 million people by 2050), our water waste problem could well become a regional water scarcity problem.

Lake Michigan might save us, but only if we start making better decisions, investments, and use of its water. What we need is a plan, and fortunately, we’ll have one in the next few months. CMAP is putting the final touches on our first regional water supply plan, while MPC and Openlands are recommending strategies for the state to encourage local implementation of that plan. 

Water waste is a much easier problem to solve than water scarcity… let’s not wait until the last second to try to win this one.

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