H2Oktoberfest: Four reasons water use is falling in Northeastern Illinois - Metropolitan Planning Council

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H2Oktoberfest: Four reasons water use is falling in Northeastern Illinois

Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources

Good news: Rates of Lake Michigan water use are dropping.

This October (and in September, much like real Oktoberfest) the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Josh Ellis spoke at four conferences about different aspects of MPC’s water resources management work. At the same time, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread recently culminated six years of its Charting New Waters program, releasing a vision and set of guiding principles requiring “collaborative leadership across sectors and scales.” As Josh explores throughout this series, MPC and its partners are realizing that vision here in northeastern Illinois, with lessons that can be brought to bear well beyond the banks of the Fox River and the shores of Lake Michigan.

Water consumption is dropping throughout northeastern Illinois, which may come as a bit of surprise to a lot of people. There are several reasons why, several more why we should expect that continue, and lots of implications. I examined all of these in my final October stops in Champaign-Urbana (at Illinois Water 2014) and Springfield (at the Institute for Regulatory Policy Studies).

  1. Water-efficient plumbing is working. You simply cannot buy a new plumbing fixture these days that isn't pretty efficient. Toliets, faucets, showerheads...the new stuff just doesn't use that much water compared to fixtures from 10, 20, 30 years ago. So every time a fixture is replaced, efficiency just happens. And it's going to happen more. Not only is the construction market picking up, but the proposed rule changes for use of Lake Michigan water are likely to  require communities to update local plumbing codes to require WaterSense high-efficiency fixtures. Gary Naumick from Illinois American Water presented on the effects of plumbing in detail at the Springfield conference.
  2. Water rates are on the rise. The water itself isn't getting more expensive—until something really radical happens, the water will be free—but the costs of securing, treating, delivering and then removing that water from homes and businesses definitely is. Energy, labor and materials all drive the costs of water production. More and more communities are finally getting around to replacing or repairing pipes that are a century old (or older). Places that used to subsidize water to keep rates low are instead moving toward something approximating full-cost pricing. All of this is GOOD, let me be clear. But demand for water is partially informed by price, and as the price rises, demand drops. Lisa Sparrow from Utilities, Inc., examined this, as well as the impact of consumer education, in her presentation at the Springfield conference (it was a pretty darn good panel). Those same proposed rule changes for Lake Michigan water are going to compel lots of infrastructure modernization, and encourage full-cost pricing...so again, this should continue.
  3. Water re-use is actually happening. Yeah, yeah...we're still struggling to update the Illinois Plumbing Code to make re-use of rainwater, graywater and other non-potable water easier. I have reason to be optimistic (that reason may be that I am delusional, but it's a reason!) that code change will come in 2015. We did have a subtle, but significant, plumbing victory in 2014: It used to be the case that plumbing inspectors were certified locally, but moving forward they'll be certified by the Illinois Department of Public Health, which should lead to more consistent interpretation and enforcement of the Illinois Plumbing Code. The spectre of inconsistent interpretation was one of the stumbling blocks to allowing newer, less common water re-use technology.
  4. And more change is comingMy presentation in both Urbana-Champaign and Springfield focused on the likely impacts of these Lake Michigan permit changes I keep bringing up. Literally any day we expect the permit rules to move to the second notice period of the Joint Committee on Adminstrative Rules, and then to adoption. The current iteration of proposed language very closely resembles our recommendations in Immeasurable Loss, which I feel immeasurably good about.

What does this all mean? It means water utilities need to develop new means of generating revenue, because they are selling less and less of their product. Good news is, they are. Utilities across the county are experimenting with rate structures that have less to do with the volume of water sold, and more to do with the inherent value of dependable water service. That's a good thing too.

Four weeks. Four conferences. Three states. Two watersheds. One boat, one train and lots of planes. It was a busy month, an exciting month and an interesting month. And it was really great to see that the work MPC has been doing for the past decade on a range of water issues is right in step with the needs of the times and the leading edge in policy thinking. More to come in 2015!

Here's where the rest of October took me:

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