BLOOMINGTON — If an extended drought strikes, the city of Bloomington could end up repeating what Jesse Smart calls the most trying time of his late-1980s mayoral term.

“I wouldn’t wish that on any other mayor. They get you feeling like it’s your responsibility to make it rain,” Smart said of the two-year drought that started in 1988 and stands as the city’s third worst drought of the last century. “Lake Bloomington was down to virtually a big puddle … There were places you could walk across.”

In response to that 20-month drought, the city built a pumping station along the Mackinaw River and raised a spillway on Evergreen Lake to create additional capacity.

But the city’s rapid growth over the last 20 years means those improvements would do little to boost Bloomington’s vulnerability during a similar drought, according to a study released last month by the Champaign-based Illinois State Water Survey.

The study classifies Bloomington’s water supply as “at risk” with an expectation of it becoming “inadequate” during a similar drought by 2020 if the city does not develop supplemental water supplies. An “at risk” system has between a 10 and 50 percent chance of water shortages in a worst case scenario. An “inadequate” system has a greater than 50 percent chance of water shortages under the same conditions, according to the water survey.

“Normal’s in much better shape because they have a groundwater system,” said George Roadcap,  a survey groundwater scientist who worked on the study. The study states the Mahomet Aquifer, from which Normal draws its water, has 2.3 times more water than the projected 2050 demand.

Right now, Bloomington’s water supply comes from Lake Bloomington and Evergreen Lake — a surface water system that is more vulnerable to droughts.

“We know another bad drought is going to happen. We just can’t predict when it’s going to happen,” said Vern Knapp, a surface water scientist who helped author the water survey study.

Investment

Craig Cummings, director of Bloomington’s water department, said the study confirms what Bloomington officials already know, and is more reason to continue preparations that would ease the city’s water woes during a drought.

“We have a huge investment here, in two reservoirs, a water treatment plant and pipelines to get it to town, so what we need to do is make sure we’re maximizing that particular asset before we go off and say we’re going to build a bigger plant, more supply,” Cummings said.

He said part of that is developing a drought ordinance outlining when restrictions and enforcement fines should come into play.

Restrictions would start with voluntary compliance measures but ramp up to mandatory enforcement of rules against, for example, watering lawns and washing cars.

Stricter enforcement could include shutting down water spray parks, like those found in Miller, Tipton and McGraw parks.

Cummings said he hopes to present a draft ordinance to the City Council before May.

But even with conservation measures, the city’s water supply might not last during a major drought.

“Development of supplemental sources is considered essential for reducing each community’s vulnerability to an extreme drought,” the report states.

Little progress seen

That’s something Smart said worries him as he watches the city — these days from his Smart Seeds office. “One of my biggest frustrations since being out of office is that I don’t see much progress in planning for the future,” he said.

But Cummings said the city is still working toward diversifying its water supply portfolio.

He said the City Council will be asked in March to approve contracts with scientists who would monitor existing groundwater wells to better reveal conditions of the Mahomet Aquifer in certain areas.

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