Illinois State Water Plan an important opportunity to shape state’s water future - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Illinois State Water Plan an important opportunity to shape state’s water future

Learn about the new State Water Plan Illinois is developing and how you can join MPC and others in shaping this important vision.

"Knows the Way" Courtesy of Jason W Iwanski, Flickr CC

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Water is such an integral part of our daily lives that we typically take it for granted. Fill a glass of water to drink, turn on the shower, take a walk along a nearby lake or river, eat food, wear clothes, watch the rainfall on your garden, grab a cup of joe from your local coffee shop. When we do these things and countless others, the provision of water isn’t a mindful act—it just is. Usually it takes a crisis or a problem for water to enter our consciousness as a resource that needs to be managed. We turn on our tap and no water comes out. Heavy rains cause flooding along our lakes and rivers, and backups in our basement. A public health crisis like the coronavirus underscores that too many families live without running water in their homes because they cannot afford it.

Illinois has enviable water assets, yet we face mounting pressures to manage this critically important resource effectively. That’s why it’s so significant that, for the first time since 1984, the State of Illinois is updating its State Water Plan.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a bold, inclusive State Water Plan that ensures Illinois has enough clean, safe, affordable water for current and future generations. The plan should be driven by a compelling vision and clear goals, with strategies that direct budgeting, staffing, policy and infrastructure decisions. The plan should address the threats we know: pollutants, decades-old water infrastructure, extreme weather events caused by climate change, dwindling aquifers in some parts of the state, and drinking water affordability, among others. It must also position Illinois to be resilient and prepared, rather than vulnerable and ill-equipped to address water-related challenges we haven’t even anticipated that will inevitably arise.

With a strong State Water Plan in place, Illinois can protect the public’s health, the environment, ensure clean, safe drinking water is available to all residents, and support a strong economy by creating thousands of jobs to rebuild the infrastructure needed to deliver, treat, and manage our water resources.

Read on to learn more about the state’s previous water planning efforts, the current plan’s development, and how MPC—and you—can help shape the State Water Plan.

History of water planning in Illinois

In the 1960s, Illinois issued its first Illinois State Water Plan, a 300-page behemoth that put the state on the leading edge of water planning. In the 1980s, Gov. Jim Thompson created a task force of state agencies charged with developing a new plan. The agencies met for the first time in May 1980, and published the updated plan in 1984.

Ever since then, the task force has continued to meet regularly and collaborate on water issues. Their initial focus was on the priorities outlined in the 1984 report, but eventually they pivoted to address new issues. You can learn more about the State Water Plan Task Force here.

However, the task force never embarked on a comprehensive plan update—until now. “Many states have recently developed water plans with five- and 10-year horizons. That’s a much more realistic and effective planning timeframe for ensuring the right priorities are addressed in a timely manner with appropriate state resources,” said Wes Cattoor, Office of Water Resources, Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), the agency leading plan development.

In other words, 35 years after the last Illinois State Water Plan was published, it’s high time for a refresh.

A new State Water Plan for Illinois

In 2019, led by IDNR, the State Water Plan Task Force began to discuss a plan update in 2019. To improve upon the last plan—a paper document published once, with no central location for maintaining related documents, data or public transparency—the group committed to an online version that will be updated regularly (perhaps even annually) and made accessible to the public. Their goal is to include a companion GIS database providing information such as available water supply and projected risk areas.

It’s important to note that the task force is self-directed. Resources and staff are only available as each agency voluntarily provides them. No direct funding exists for updating the State Water Plan, nor is there a mandate or required timeline to complete it.

Nevertheless, the group began its work by sifting through 30-plus potential priority issues. Some of the task force members reached out to nonprofit and community partners for insights and ideas, while others relied on internal insights. Eventually the list of 30 issues was organized under 13 priorities to be addressed by the plan. One agency is quarterbacking each of the priority issues, including researching the issue and its subtopics, developing a problems narrative, identifying strategies to address that issue and its subtopics, and authoring that section of the report. Check out the table on the State Water Plan webpage for the list of issues and leads.

The list of 13 priorities is meant to be a “solid start to the conversation,” according to Cattoor, not the final list. Prior to the Governor’s March 21, 2020, order to stay home due to the coronavirus, the State Water Plan Task Force had scheduled three public meetings for April in Chicago, Giant City, and Springfield to invite Illinoisans’ feedback on the priority issues. Because public meetings have been postponed indefinitely, the plan’s timeline and engagement plans have shifted. Until the meetings can be rescheduled, the task force will seek input from nonprofit and community organizations that are interested in getting involved. 

“We don’t want to shortcut public engagement due to COVID-19,” said Cattoor. “April meetings will be rescheduled once we have a better sense of how long this public health crisis will last. We also plan to do another set of public meetings after recommendations are identified, and a final set of meetings once a draft report is published.”

How you can join MPC in shaping the State Water Plan

As the task force was developing priority issues, MPC was one of a few organizations consulted. Because engagement was left to the discretion of each issue lead, some issues have received no outside feedback so far.

To begin to broaden engagement, in March 2020, IDNR met with MPC and other members of the Illinois Environmental Council to invite participation in plan development. Specifically, IDNR has requested help in broadening public engagement as well as contributing expertise to shape plan priorities.

Following that meeting, MPC and partners volunteered to develop a values and goals framework to help guide each of the agency leads’ work on their sections of the plan. With shared values and goals, such as environmental justice and collaborative investment, it’s far more likely the plan will be implemented by a broad range of stakeholders—and their buy-in is a must, given the lack of resources for water planning in Illinois.

To ensure the plan works for all Illinoisans, MPC, IDNR, and IEC members are also working together to develop a public survey, which will include questions such as "What values should drive the State Water Plan?" and "What priority issues are missing in the final plan?". We expect the survey to be ready later this spring, and we will work together to widely distribute it to ensure broad participation. Watch for a follow-up blog post from MPC later this spring to promote the survey!

In sum, the State Water Plan will be an important tool to shape policy makers’ decisions and secure adequate funding to achieve the state’s water-related priorities. We encourage NGO and community partners to join us in shaping a thoughtful, inclusive plan that is  great. It’s time to stop taking our water resources for granted. We must ensure Illinois has more than enough safe, clean, and affordable water.

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