Let's fix some leaks! IDNR’s proposed updates to Lake Michigan permit process a good first step; region should go even further - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Let's fix some leaks! IDNR’s proposed updates to Lake Michigan permit process a good first step; region should go even further

Photo courtesy of Don Harder

Approximately 71 million gallons of Lake Michigan water are lost each day in northeastern Illinois.

It’s Fix a Leak Week, an annual, national campaign to encourage Americans to grab a pair of pliers (or hire a plumber) to fix running toilets, dripping faucets and other household leaks that add up to an estimated 11,000 gallons of water wasted each year in each U.S. household. To encourage Chicagoans to take part in Fix a Leak Week, MPC is abuzz on Twitter, sharing tips and how-to videos for DIY repairs.

But there’s also a much bigger “leak” we’re fixated on: The “best” available information we have suggests that approximately 26 billion gallons of Lake Michigan water (almost 108 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth) is lost each year in northeastern Illinois through our aging water system and poor policies – much of it after it has been treated to safe drinking water standards at a substantial cost to rate payers.

Financially speaking, if that water – 26 billion gallons lost on an annual basis – was sold to consumers in northeastern Illinois, the estimated retail value would be approximately $98 million a year. That’s not the cost of producing that water – we can’t know that because Illinois does not collect any information on production costs – but it gives a sense of the scale of the problem.

This considerable loss is quite a challenge to overcome – through repairing thousands of miles of pipe, and replacing tens of thousands of worn-out meters. But these massive maintenance and modernization efforts do not address an underlying dilemma: While we know our region is losing vast sums of Lake Michigan water, and we know this inefficiency is costing us money, we don’t have a clear picture of how much water or how much money. That’s because the methods the Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources (IDNR) has long used to administer Lake Michigan water permits do not capture the kind of use data we need to identify the causes of loss and solutions to prevent it. As a result, our “best” available information is frankly not that good.

IDNR oversees the Lake Michigan Water Allocation program, which monitors water usage all over the Chicagoland area and beyond. Fortunately, IDNR’s recently proposed updates to the permit conditions for Lake Michigan water users—which have not been updated since they were created in 1980—begin to ask the “right” questions. We cannot manage what we don’t measure, and we can’t begin to measure regional water loss until we ask the right questions of lake water permittees. 

The reforms not only will improve the information collected about actual water loss, but also inform policies that require water users to invest in both infrastructure modernization and modern practices such as efficient lawn watering practices and domestic plumbing technology. The result? Preserving our precious water supply.

You can read IDNR’s proposals on their web site and, until April 5 the public can comment on these proposals.

In response to and support of IDNR’s proposals, MPC is finalizing a white paper that provides useful background information and analysis – what we know about regional water loss, what we don’t know, and why our current data is lacking – as well as recommends pragmatic solutions to address this growing challenge. MPC supports IDNR’s proposed changes as a good first step toward improving Illinois’ Lake Michigan water use accounting system and modernizing the state’s water use policies and practices.

In addition to supporting IDNR’s positive momentum, MPC recommends IDNR (and by extension, the 200-plus permittees using Lake Michigan water) adopt a variety of innovative strategies to manage our Lake Michigan water asset even more effectively. MPC’s proposed solutions, outlined in our forthcoming report, fall under five action areas:

  1. Improve the existing accounting process for Lake Michigan water use, while beginning to explore a revamped, more effective process;
  2. Encourage communities to adopt full-cost pricing and universal advanced metering;
  3. Require permittees to adopt modern plumbing standards;
  4. Revise and standardize outdoor water use requirements for permittees; and
  5. Increase the capacity of IDNR’s Office of Water Resources so that it can provide technical assistance and better collaboration with Lake Michigan permittees.

Reforms in these areas will have substantial positive impacts on improving water resources management in northeastern Illinois. We urge IDNR to adopt these proposals, to be a model for other states that use Lake Michigan water and, most importantly, to fix the biggest “leak” in northeastern Illinois.

Stay tuned for our white paper, which will be released at an MPC roundtable on May 7!


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