Cape Town Is Not As Far Away As You Think - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Cape Town Is Not As Far Away As You Think

“Day Zero” for some parts of Northeastern Illinois may be closer than we thought


Flickr user Natalia Pokrovskaya (CC)

People using water in Cape Town, where taps may soon be shut down due to a severe shortage.

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You may have heard or read that Cape Town, South Africa is running out of water. Day Zero, as it has been called, is when the city’s water supply levels will be so depleted that the drinking water system will be shut down, and extreme rationing will begin for the city's four million residents. Cape Town may be the first city in recent history facing a doomsday scenario of water taps running dry, but it is not the only one.

Here in Illinois, the drought of 2012 highlighted how precarious our water availability can be when communities, agriculture, industry and energy production all rely on a dwindling water source. In fact, recently released data reveals that some residents of our region are facing water shortages much sooner than was previously understood.

While Cape Town may seem far away, a similar situation is unfolding right here in our region.

The Ill. State Water Survey (ISWS), which has been monitoring and modeling Illinois’ water resources for more than a century, released a seminal report in 2015 about water levels in northern Illinois. The report sounded an alarm about groundwater availability:

  • Our deep sandstone aquifers are being depleted unsustainably;
  • High-capacity wells could be unusable in as little as 10-15 years;
  • Many more wells could be dry by 2050.

About 20 percent of northeastern Illinois’ population relies on a water source other than Lake Michigan, and about 78 percent of that population relies solely on groundwater. To serve them, some 90 million gallons per day are being withdrawn from the deep sandstone aquifers—a withdrawal rate at least twice as high as what is sustainable. Some areas are already experiencing significant depletion and some shallower, private wells are already going dry.

That’s not the truly alarming part… this is:

Since the release of the 2015 report, recent water level data (2014-2017) acquired by ISWS has revealed that several public water supply wells near the center of the groundwater depletion zone have dropped 10-24 feet per year—a rate fast enough where you can almost see the water levels dropping. 

Because of this updated information, ISWS has changed its worst case scenario time estimate from 10 years to 5 years.

New drinking water sources and conservation practices are needed.

Whether the date is 5, 10 or 15 years from now, we need to prudently plan for the worst and hope for the best—the time for action is now. This is a regional problem that has been building for decades, and fixing this will require regional solutions and cooperation. The deep aquifer is no longer a viable water supply source for any community. New drinking water sources—and there are multiple, potential options—need to be brought online. This issue must be faced and tackled collaboratively across communities and industries, and with a sense of urgency.

Additionally, improved water efficiency practices—such as significantly reducing the amount of outdoor irrigation that uses drinking water—are critical now and in perpetuity as the region studies, designs, pays for and builds out new water supply systems.

Regional agencies and organizations have warned about this issue for more than a decade. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) highlighted the issue in its first ever water supply/demand plan (Water 2050) released in 2010. MPC has been working with partners to elevate this issue for years, including by releasing Before the Wells Run Dry in 2009, and co-hosting a Water Day Forum with the City of Aurora and the Northwest Water Planning Alliance in May 2016. This issue is also featured in MPC’s Water Supply Action Agenda, Drinking Water 1-2-3 guide and in the media.

By request and through support from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and CMAP, MPC is working with community leaders in the region to help build momentum, establish collaboration, provide education and increase data collection and monitoring in order to get out ahead of this looming issue.

Let’s not find ourselves in the same predicament as Cape Town.

In Cape Town, the alarm bells about depleting water were first sounded back in 1990, when the Water Research Commission (WRC) released a study demonstrating the risk of future water supplies with an accompanying Cape Times headline that stated the city would “run out of water in 17 years.” While the prediction was off by about 10 years, the problem was identified and foretold with plenty of time to implement both alternative water supply systems and improved water efficiency practices.

In Northeastern Illinois, we don’t want to wait until it’s too late before taking action—the costs are too high. Ensuring safe and sustainable drinking water service in our region is imperative for livability and economic development. Communities are doing good work, and we need to support them in collaboratively moving forward today to avoid a future "Day Zero" in our region.

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