Drinking water supplies provide an essential service to our communities. Over a century of water use from northern Illinois’ deep sandstone aquifers has led to declining water levels, as more water has been withdrawn than naturally replaced. Population growth and industrial development, as well as climate change will lead to increasing withdrawals from constrained groundwater resources unless action is taken.
To address these water supply issues, the Northwest Water Planning Alliance is currently seeking funding to create a Water Supply Sustainability Plan. The first of its kind for the Chicago region, the Water Supply Sustainability Plan will use newly available ISWS sustainable yield estimates for each water source to develop a regional water supply sustainability goal. Sustainable yield represents how much water can be withdrawn, where and for how long, with acceptable physical, economic, environmental, social, cultural, institutional, and legal consequences. The plan will identify voluntary recommendations to establish a path towards long-term sustainable use of water resources in the NWPA area.
The NWPA is seeking to partner with Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), Illinois Water Survey (ISWS), and the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) to develop the plan. The partners will help evaluate the potential water savings of different strategies and assess how effective their implementation could be toward meeting the sustainability goal.
Building the plan
For the Water Supply Sustainability Plan to be successful, involvement and expertise of NWPA members will be a critical component of the planning process. NWPA members would play a vital role in developing and evaluating strategies that can help the area achieve a long-term sustainable water supply. Potential, voluntary strategies will be reviewed and selected by NWPA’s Technical Advisory Committee and members will be called upon to provide information on how specific strategies are currently being used in the NWPA area. Potential recommendations could include active and passive water conservation strategies, such as reducing water loss, metering with volumetric rates, reusing water, as well as retrofitting plumbing and upgrading appliances to water efficient models. The process will engage members in evaluating how a specific strategy can contribute to the overall sustainable water supply goal, and how it can be feasibly implemented by an individual municipality.
In addition to working with members, NWPA will enlist water conservation and demand management experts such as the Alliance for Water Efficiency and U.S. EPA WaterSense, to participate in the committee sessions. These experts can help the project team select feasible strategies and set appropriate implementation timelines.
With NWPA’s assistance, the Water Supply Sustainability Plan will provide a shared vision and voluntary strategies to promote long-term sustainability of water resources currently being used by NWPA members. It could also be used as a resource for individual municipal plans and could provide a model for other areas of the state.
To maintain a sustainable water supply in the NWPA region, we need your help. Join an upcoming NWPA Technical Advisory Committee meeting to get involved.
As the late Tom Weisner, former Mayor of Aurora and co-founder of the NWPA, explained in 2017, “[p]reserving the sandstone aquifers is critical because they're our insurance policy against a future water disaster. These aquifers provide emergency drinking water supply when a drought happens, or an algae bloom occurs.... Unless we act today to sustain our deep aquifers, we put our children—and their children—at great risk.”
All of the NWPA’s drinking water supplies provide an essential service to our communities, and the ability to continue to rely on each source is threatened by many challenges. Over a century of water withdrawals from northern Illinois’ deep sandstone aquifers has led to declining water levels, as more water has been withdrawn through pumping than naturally replaced. Decades of activities on the land surface, such as the use of road salt and PFAs, has led to contamination of shallow groundwater and river water sources. Against this backdrop, the NWPA formed to collaboratively plan for and steward the shared river and groundwater resources, to ensure a sustainable water supply for the people, economy, environment, and future generations.
From day one, the NWPA recognized the power of water conservation, efficiency, and source water protection practices to sustain long term water supplies. However, one central question has evaded the NWPA until now -- just how much less water does the region need to use in order to maintain a water supply for generations to come? In order to answer this question, we first need to understand how much water we are currently using in relation to the sustainable yield.
ISWS advances sustainable yield values and provides guidepost
The Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS), with support from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, will begin answering this question by releasing sustainable yield values for each water source by county later this year. Representing a significant advancement in groundwater knowledge, sustainable yield values will provide the NWPA with critical information needed to move the region to a sustainable path forward.
What is sustainable yield?
There is no one generally agreed upon definition or measure of sustainable yield. However, the concept of sustainable yield broadly represents how much water can be withdrawn, where and for how long, with acceptable physical, economic, environmental, social, cultural, institutional, and legal consequences. In this preliminary step, ISWS is first calculating sustainable yield for each water source based on available information and will layer on additional concepts in coming years to provide a more comprehensive
assessment for communities.
For the shallow aquifers, the physical sustainable yield is the volume of water entering the Sand and Gravel and Silurian Dolomite aquifers annually from natural recharge. The ISWS also plans to include an ecological component to recognize the importance of groundwater discharge to the streamflow of surface waterways and aquatic life. In the coming years, we can anticipate the sustainable yield calculations to be updated to refine this ecological component as we learn more about local conditions and include drought, climate change, and water quality considerations.
The sustainable yield value for the sandstone aquifers will be calculated as the volume of water entering the aquifer basin annually minus the water leaving the basin, not including pumpage. The water entering and leaving the basin comes from a variety of sources: natural and anthropogenic recharge, and horizontal flow. Natural recharge is precipitation and streamflow that soaks into the ground and eventually travels down to the sandstone aquifers. Unintended anthropogenic recharge is water moving into and out of the sandstone aquifers via multi-aquifer wells. This type of recharge is included, because multi-aquifer wells are likely to persist given the expense and lack of a process to update them. Horizontal inflow and outflow includes water moving across the basin, generally from west to east. This is an important concept to include, as actions in a neighboring county can have an impact on water availability in another.
Unlike the above water sources, Lake Michigan already has a legally-defined “water budget.” Set by the U.S. Supreme Court, Illinois has an official amount of water that it is allowed to withdraw from the lake. Each community relying on this source is given an allocation of water as a condition of their permit. This sustainable yield estimate will account for the institutional aspects of sustainable yield, not the physical or ecological components.
In a similar fashion, the Fox River sustainable yield value will not be defined by physical or ecological aspects, at least initially. In this first version, it will reflect the infrastructure capacity of existing users. An analysis done for Water 2050 recognized the potential of the Fox River to become a water supply source for additional communities. Therefore, we know that this initial sustainable yield calculation is a conservative estimate. Future updates will seek to include hydrological and ecological considerations, drought and climate change impacts, and water quality.
Given that our water system is as dynamic as our communities, we anticipate that the sustainable yield values will be updated in the future as we learn more about our water resources, as our climate changes, and as the pattern of water demand shifts over time. In the coming years, ISWS will be adding other considerations of sustainable yield; refining these calculations will be an ongoing exercise.
Using sustainable yield to inspire action
Once derived, the sustainable yield value can be compared to current and projected water withdrawals to better understand the extent to which water use exceeds this sustainability metric. The region is anticipated to be withdrawing significantly more water from the sandstone and shallow aquifers than the sustainable yield value.
The NWPA intends to explore the creation of a voluntary, regional sustainability goal to help move the area towards a sustainable path. The regional sustainability goal will be expressed as a percentage reduction from current and projected water use levels by water source needed to align with sustainable yield values.
If annual water withdrawals from communities and industries equaled the sustainable yield value, then groundwater mining – or the depletion of stored water -- would be minimized in the sandstone aquifers, and groundwater discharge from the shallow aquifers to nearby streams would also be minimized. By reducing withdrawals, the current areas at risk of desaturation could recover, but by how much and how quickly will depend on local conditions. Additional considerations to sustainability could be added in the future to reflect community goals.
This broad goal will not be focused on any one community but will provide the NWPA region with an overall guidepost and a road map for water conservation and efficiency. To achieve regional sustainability, each water supplier/community will need to evaluate their own unique water supply assets and set their own goals for sustainability.
In the coming months, the NWPA will be working with the ISWS to better understand the sustainable yield values and identify a voluntary regional sustainability goal. A sustainable water supply is critical for the future of our region; join the NWPA Technical Advisory Committee meetings to participate in the conversation.
The winter season is the perfect time of year for communities to become ‘salt smart’ and practice sensible salting! This means being strategic and responsible about salt usage and placement for optimal performance without excess use. It also means incorporating alternative de-icing materials like salt brine and beet juice into snow and ice management to cut back on salt use.
Each winter, communities across northeastern Illinois use salt to manage ice on roads, sidewalks, and parking lots. While maintaining public safety during winter conditions is necessary, much of the salt applied to paved surfaces using old methods is excessive and leads to costly economic and environmental impacts.
The need to protect source water is growing exponentially as drinking water supplies throughout the NWPA region continue to be threatened by water quality and quantity constraints. Population growth and the depletion of the sandstone aquifers are pressuring many communities to rely more heavily on shallow aquifers or turn to a different water source entirely. However, these sources also have their share of complications. Shallow aquifers are vulnerable to contamination given their proximity to the land’s surface. At the same time, dry spells and drought conditions diminish supply in shallow aquifers and rivers. Weather trends like these will likely be more prevalent as climate change upends the region, making these sources less reliable into the future.
In response to this need for improved protection, state legislation was passed in July 2019 requiring that community water suppliers (CWSs) develop a source water protection plan (SWPP) – a plan aimed at advancing the protection of the water quality and quantity at the community level. In an effort to better coordinate and conserve the region’s water resources, this type of plan can help a community protect its source water.
Source Water Protection Plans 101
Each SWPP must contain at minimum four specific elements: a vision statement, a source water assessment, plan objectives, and an action plan to meet the plan’s objectives (see Ill. Admin. Code tit. 35, § 604.305).
Leveraging SWPPs in the NWPA region
While SWPPs are a requirement for all CWSs, communities should view their plan—more specifically the planning process—as an opportunity to comprehensively address the community’s source water protection challenges. In addition to the baseline requirements, CWSs could assess existing water conservation efforts in search for opportunities to ‘protect’ source water by simply using less, whether that be through reducing outdoor water use or water efficiency measures. Similarly, CWSs can assess the community’s future land use as well as projected water demand relative to the community’s water supply to better understand future challenges and potential options.
Like many planning processes, stakeholder engagement and community support and buy-in are key to plan implementation. This holds true for SWPPs as well. Recognizing that CWSs are not the only actor vested in source water protection, the SWPP planning process can help CWSs improve coordination and align efforts as they identify stakeholders, engage with the public, and learn about other existing source water protection efforts within the CWS service area. Soil and water conservation districts, chambers of commerce, and local watershed planning groups are a few entities, for example, that may have a role in helping implement a CWS’s SWPP action plan.
Aurora, Elgin, and Sugar Grove are a few NWPA communities that are in the process of developing a SWPP that goes beyond the minimum requirements. These CWSs can serve as a resource to other communities that are interested in learning about the planning process and how to approach the SWPP development more comprehensively. Elgin, for instance, is focusing on stakeholder and community engagement to give the CWS an opportunity to take advantage of existing protection efforts already underway and garner community support to minimize barriers to plan implementation. Sugar Grove's SWPP provides a thorough assessment of water quality impacts, including a detailed overview of their wellhead protection areas and evaluating potential sources of contamination based on point sources and the existing land uses within the community.
Resources for preparing SWPPs
There are a variety of resources that can help CWSs get started on their SWPP! Back in the early 2000s, the Illinois EPA developed Community Water Supply Source Water Assessment Program Factsheets. These function as a great starting point for a CWS as it develops its source water assessment. The Illinois EPA also an interactive map with a series of datasets than can also help with preparing the assessment. Upon request, a CWS can seek technical assistance for the Illinois EPA to help develop their source water assessment. Communities can simply use the factsheets, albeit outdated, to fulfill their assessment requirement as well. In addition to IEPA resources, the NWPA has numerous resources that can help a community prepare a SWPP. They have a repository of the latest studies and data on drinking water supplies in northeastern Illinois as well as tools to assist with source water protection and promote best management practices in outdoor water use, sensible salting, and water conservation. The American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) also has a Source Water Protection Operational Guide which is an easy-to-read guide that can help CWSs walk through the SWPP planning process and create an effective plan. IL AWWA even has source water protection committee that can serve a resource as CWSs prepare their SWPP.
The Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) will be conducting a regional assessment of sandstone water levels throughout Northeastern Illinois starting on August 16, 2021 and extending into October. The goal of this project is to create a synopsis or “snapshot” of static and pumping water levels at high capacity municipal, industrial, and irrigation sandstone wells throughout a 12-county region. Specifically, the ISWS will visit high-capacity wells open to the St. Peter and Ironton-Galesville sandstones in Boone, Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lake, LaSalle, McHenry, Will, and Winnebago Counties.
The ISWS has historically only measured static water levels in sandstone wells during previous synoptic measurements (the last one completed in 2015), however recent research has indicated that understanding pumping levels and specific capacities of production wells is vital in understanding the long-term viability of the sandstone aquifers. In the coming weeks, the ISWS will be contacting municipalities, industries, and other entities with high-capacity wells to schedule a time to visit to take static (non-pumping water levels) at sandstone wells. The ISWS will ask how long it has been since the well ran and request that wells be off for at least an hour prior to taking a static reading. In addition, the ISWS is asking facilities to:
Capturing both static and pumping levels, along with the pumping rate that was occurring at the time of the pumping level measurement, will allow the ISWS to map areas of high and low specific capacities for the sandstone aquifers. This reporting will ultimately help communities to: 1) understand how sandstone levels are changing through time, 2) understand how productivity varies among sandstone wells, and 3) ensure the long-term viability of the sandstone aquifers in the region.
If facilities have questions prior to the start of this project, please contact one of the following hydrogeologists at the ISWS:
Drought on the Horizon
Last month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its latest Climate Normals – a decennial analysis of U.S. weather over three decades (1991 – 2020). This snapshot provides a more accurate reflection of what is considered ‘normal’ weather amid a rapidly changing climate. According to NOAA, the average annual temperature in Illinois has increased by about 1 degree Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century. By the end of this century, temperatures are expected to rise 7 to 12 degrees.
The Illinois Water Inventory Program (IWIP) develops and maintains a database of high-capacity water wells and intakes from public water supplies, self-supplied industries, irrigation, fish and wildlife, and conservation sectors. But they do much more than collect data. Participation and involvement with IWIP pays dividends for operators, stakeholders, and users alike.
IWIP coordinates reporting and data collection on high-capacity water wells and intakes statewide, which are defined as any well or intake that is rated to pump 70 gallons per minute (gpm) or greater, both individually and as a combined measure when multiple wells/intakes are present at one facility. This collection is done primarily through IWIP’s Online Reporting Tool and covers groundwater and surface water uses.
As more residents are staying at home in response to the coronavirus, some utilities may be seeing an increase in residential water use. As the pandemic drags on, it’s easy to imagine residents spending more time in their gardens and lawns – which could result in an increase in outdoor water use. Under more normal circumstances, approximately one third of household water use is devoted to outdoor watering, and as much as 50 percent of that water is wasted due to unwise and wasteful watering behavior. Given these conditions, it’s a good time to review strategies to promote wise outdoor water use as the summer months approach.
The Metropolitan Planning Council debuted their latest report, Water Affordability in Northeastern Illinois, with a presentation and Q&A session at the February TAC meeting. The report examined the nuances around water affordability and pricing.
Water rates in Northeastern Illinois have gone up 80% over the past 10 years with many contributing factors, notably the need to replace aging water and sewer infrastructure. The report looked at different methods to measure affordability and water burden and tried to ask the question if unaffordable rates were an income inequality issue, a water pricing issue, or both.
WaterSense, a voluntary partnership program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is both a label for water-efficient products and a resource for helping you save water.
WaterSense partners are ambassadors spreading the water-efficiency message. Becoming a WaterSense partner is free and offers exclusive member-only resources, networking opportunities, and branding.
The NWPA encourages all member communities to become WaterSense partners. 26 NWPA member municipalities, including Aurora, Elgin, St. Charles, and Sugar Grove are already active partners. The partners-only resources page features collateral and outreach materials that are fully customizable for communicating initiatives to the public, the media, and stakeholders.
The latest updates page features posts about issues affecting NWPA member communities and best practices, drawing on interviews and conversations with experts.