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Soak up conservation

Voice of the people (letter)

Chicago -- With rain and cooling temperatures coming from the west, it's likely that many people will soon forget about the grass "brownout" of 2005 and go right back to their promiscuous water use.

But that attitude will only bring more water woes in years to come.

Instead, we should consider this year's drought--with its watering bans, straw-like lawns and scant sweet corn--a cautionary tale that could help shape new attitudes and actions among Chicago-area residents to preserve and protect our limited water resources.

Rather than regarding Lake Michigan as an infinite supply of water, we, as a region, must absorb the fact that, even in the Great Lakes region, water is a precious commodity that needs to be conserved.

Planning ahead for anticipated growth is a strong first step. The Chicago region is expected to grow by nearly 2 million residents by 2030, and more than half of those new residents are expected to live in currently undeveloped areas.

New subdivisions and infrastructure investments--especially in parts of the region without access to lake water--must incorporate policies that ensure abundant drinking water and protect our existing natural resources.

Best development practices minimize "impervious" or nonporous surfaces, which include roads, driveways, parking lots and roofs. Such surfaces prevent rainwater from draining into underground water stores, called aquifers, which recharge wells.

Communities that adopt policies to reduce impervious surfaces, therefore, help to maintain an adequate water supply. Even where development is already under way, elected and appointed officials can change the course of future growth.

By revising subdivision ordinances, communities can reduce street widths and building setbacks, urge smaller parking lots and cluster residential development to maintain open space.

Municipal and county codes also can be retooled to encourage permeable paving and green roof designs, both of which improve aquifer recharge.

In areas of the region that are dependent on wells, communities should look to vegetated swells instead of curbs and gutters along roads and streets. Swells are depressions planted with native vegetation or grasses, which again will be stronger in periods of less water.

Individuals can also be part of the solution. Gardeners can beautify their backyards and conserve water with native plants, which by their nature help recharge aquifers because they have longer roots than turf grass. With their colorful blooms, native plants like purple cornflowers, sky blue asters and prairie phlox provide a hardy, drought-resistant, low-maintenance landscape.

Once established, native plants save time and money by reducing the need for fertilizers, pesticides and lawn maintenance. And, as a bonus, they attract native wildlife such as birds and butterflies.

Rainwater gardens--shallow, wet areas in a yard, planted with native plants and wildflowers that flourish with "wet feet"--retain, detain and infiltrate storm water runoff from a home's roof. Even without the rain, these gardens require less water than non-native landscaping.

And indoors, low-water-use toilets and water-efficient shower heads will reduce the amount of water for daily use.

Even if next year brings flooding, communities and residents in northeastern Illinois must make good planning and water conservation a top priority.

As explosive population growth increases the strain on our water supply, those who plan now will be rewarded with clean, abundant water well into the future.

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For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

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