What the Great Lakes Compact means for the Chicago region - Metropolitan Planning Council

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What the Great Lakes Compact means for the Chicago region

The recent passage of the Great Lakes Compact, an historic interstate and international freshwater protection agreement, makes water supply planning even more important.

On Oct. 3, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Great Lakes Compact into law.  The Compact, which had already been approved by Congress, eight states, and two provincial governments, is intended to foster “sustainable use and responsible management of Great Lakes Basin waters” through regional goals for conservation and efficiency, and shared decision-making criteria for future uses.

Perhaps most significantly, the Compact explicitly limits future diversions of water.  While this limit may have been a response to past proposals to ship water to China or pipe it to golf courses in the southwest, the local ramification is that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for northeastern Illinois to increase its annual allocation of Lake Michigan water in the future.  However, while our diversion will not grow over time (3,200 cubic feet of water per second), the region’s overall population is growing, and with it the number of people relying on Lake Michigan water.  As reported in Troubled Waters, a 2005 publication of the Metropolitan Planning Council and Openlands, the population served by public water systems presently receiving Lake Michigan water is expected to increase by approximately 12 percent by 2020.

This means the time is now to ensure the region’s future water supply.  This will require commitment to a threefold approach:


  • Planning – The Compact requires that states adopt a plan to manage and protect water supply.  Fortunately, since 2005, Illinois has been moving toward a statewide framework for regional water supply planning, but it has been slow-going.  Two pilot regional planning groups – in northeastern Illinois and east central Illinois – have completed regional demand analyses, but the state recently cut funding to complete regional supply analyses.  County, municipal, and foundation dollars have been cobbled together to complete the analyses, but sustained commitment from the State of Illinois is necessary to ensure these pilot groups, as well as those to follow, have the support and resources necessary to plan our state’s water future.  In December 2008, the Metropolitan Planning Council and Openlands plan to release a report recommending strategies to support and strengthen this burgeoning planning effort.


  • Investment in infrastructure – Simply put, the Chicago region needs a plumber.  Many communities have woefully old, outdated, and inefficient water piping systems, resulting in substantial leakage and loss.  According to the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse, expected loss in any water system is between 10 and 20 percent.   However, infrastructure maintenance, repair, and modernization are often expensive propositions.  An upcoming conference, co-hosted by the Metropolitan Planning Council and New York’s Regional Plan Association, aims to set priorities for investment in water, energy, and transportation infrastructure, and will focus directly on municipal water system needs.


  • Efficiency and conservation – The best way to ensure sustainable water supplies in the future is to use less today.  Part of this is simply changing daily habits or upgrading technology, but a significant part of it is land use.  Communities built with greater proximity between homes, jobs, parks, schools, and stores tend to use less water per household.  A land use impact calculator developed by the San Francisco League of Conservation Voters illustrates the denser a community, the less water it consumes.  While very few states explicitly link land use decisions with the availability of water, since the 2004 release of Changing Course by the Metropolitan Planning Council and Openlands, we have advocating for exactly that.


Too often, it requires a drought or flood to force people to think about water supply.  With the passage of the Great Lakes Compact, however, it is the guarantee of a steady, unchanging water supply that compels us to take action today to ensure that our diversion is sufficient in the years to come.


If you have any questions about the Metropolitan Planning Council’s water supply work, or would like to support future efforts, please contact Josh Ellis at jellis@metroplanning.org or at (312) 863-6045.

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