Regulations and Ordinances: A Nuisance or Vital Conservation Tool? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Regulations and Ordinances: A Nuisance or Vital Conservation Tool?

Photo courtesy of Flickr Commons, RC fortun8

Lawn watering ordinances are some of the most visible water conservation ordinances in the Lake Michigan area. They are required for all municipalities who use Lake Michigan water in order to encourage conservation.

Many people don’t give much thought to the regulations and ordinances that govern their water use. The largest impact they see is that they can probably only water their lawn on certain days. However, there is a lot of thought that goes into those regulations, as I learned at the second workshop of four in the DuPage Water Commission workshop serieson conservation.

The DuPage Water CommissionMetropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and MWH Global all collaborated to host this workshop series, geared toward public works employees to get ideas and advice on programs to implement in their municipalities.

If we asked you if you wanted to take steps to improve water conservation, you would probably say yes. But if we asked you how you should do that, you might have a much harder time answering. MPC Associate Abby Crisostomo explained that while people like the idea of water conservation, they are unlikely to pursue it on their own without guidance and consistency. The purpose of regulations and ordinances is to show people how to most effectively conserve water.

But who is going to read the massive book of ordinances at town hall? Bill Balling of WRB, LLC highlighted the fact that municipalities have too many ordinances and don’t have the time or money to enforce them. Bill has experienced this as the Village Manager for Buffalo Grove, Illinois and now as a consultant for municipalities on policy and water management. He stressed that municipalities should simplify and prioritize their ordinances.

New methods of water conservation that are increasingly more popular are graywater and rainwater reuse systems. Rainwater reuse systems are integrated into a building’s plumbing  to capture waste water (usually rainwater from the roof), filter it to be suitable for use in toilets and showers, circulate the water through the building for those uses, then send the waste to the traditional wastewater treatment system. Graywater systems reuse water that was previously used in sinks or showers by filtering and sending it back through the system for toilet flushing and cooling. We learned from John Bauer of Wahaso, a company that builds these systems, that they are valuable because you don’t need to use valuable drinking water for these purposes and instead you can use recycled water that would otherwise just runoff into the stormwater or wastewater systems. In a region like ours where stormwater systems commonly overflow during large rain storms, the diversion of rainwater is incredibly valuable.

The processing skid for the rainwater reuse system installed by Wahaso at the Field’s Volvo “The World’s Greenest Volvo Dealership”, in Northfield, Ill. The processing skid is connected to the water and sewer systems of the dealership. It cleans the water, and then circulates it for toilet flushing and irrigation of the property.

Photo courtesy of John Bauer, Wahaso

If these systems are so great, why don’t we see more of them? Right now in Illinois, you need to get a special variance to build them. We learned from MPC Program Director Josh Ellis that the Illinois Plumbing Code doesn’t mention anything about graywater or rainwater harvesting and therefore municipalities are not able to create their own regulations. Once the code provides for graywater and rainwater harvesting systems, municipalities will be free to use—or improve upon—those guidelines. MPC is currently working with the Plumbing Code Advisory Council and the Illinois Department of Public Health to streamline this rewrite process  to improve water efficiency, reduce waste and enable re-use of non-potable water where appropriate. New regulations are currently out for public comment in the April 26 issue of the Illinois Register.

Another major piece of regulation being debated right now in the region is the Lake Michigan water loss permit system. The state of Illinois is only allowed to take a certain amount of water out of the lake partly due to the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900. This means that the state needs to account for all of the water it takes, including water that is lost through leaky pipes. Josh explained that right now, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources requires municipalities to report all of their water extraction and loss to ensure they are within the cap. Municipalities are allowed an 8 percent unavoidable loss in the system.  However, this 8 percent is fairly arbitrary and MPC believes a more nuanced way to measure performance of a utility is necessary to find the most cost-effective way to conserve water.

One way to do this would be to switch to the M36 system created by the American Water Works Association. John VanArsdel representing AWWA outlined the inner workings and benefits of the system. The M36 is a software program that contains a series of spreadsheets to help a municipality track water loss in the system. It is meant to point out where the losses are occurring and make suggestions on how to make improvements. Their goal is to motivate utilities to make improvements by showing them the economic benefits instead of viewing loss as being an “unavoidable loss” or a “loss allowance.”

I thought that some of the most interesting discussion came when a few people in attendance asked about how to balance conservation and revenue. Water demand is currently decreasing in Illinois so many utilities are having trouble covering their costs. Bill Balling advocated for full cost pricing of water. He pushed for a hybrid fixed cost/variable-cost system that charges a fixed, constant price to cover long-run costs and a variable price that is based on how much the customer uses to pay for short-run costs. This allows the utility to cover fixed costs, even if the customer is carrying out conservation measures and pays very little through the variable part of the bill. The City of Aurora has had success with this type of system because it has allowed them to offset the rising population with the conservation efforts, delaying the need for a multi-million dollar expansion to increase capacity. We will be covering the topic of water rates and revenue further at the final workshop of the series on Wednesday, August 28.

There will be two more workshops this summer focusing on indoor and outdoor water use and water rates and revenue. The half-day workshops are free and open to all public works employees, and count for 3.25 Renewal Training Credits through Illinois EPA. For more information, contact MPC Associate Abby Crisostomo.

MPC Research Assistant Rachel Carnahan authored this post.

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