On a rainy day in northeastern Illinois, you might have stepped outside and wondered when the downpour would end, without realizing a centuryold and potentially life-changing deficit was growing hundreds of feet below.
Less than 50 miles away from one of the largest freshwater systems on Earth, groundwater is running out.
Joliet is the latest city to give up on the deep aquifers, voting last month — in a decision officials called the most significant in the town’s history — to tap into Lake Michigan water provided by Chicago.
That comes with a cost: If Joliet takes on the project alone, an average monthly water bill for residents could quadruple in the next 20 years, from about $34 to nearly $140. But officials say a new water source is necessary. By 2030, when the pipeline to Joliet is expected to be completed, a few wells that supply Joliet water could be struggling to meet demands.
Joliet could probably manage with one or two deficient wells, said Daniel Abrams, a research scientist with the Illinois State Water Survey. But beyond that — “basically shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”
“The problem is going to be there,” Abrams said. “It’s just a matter of when it manifests.”
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In northeastern Illinois, more water has been drained from the aquifers than is replenished, causing water levels to drop to depths where costs and complications may render wells inoperable.
Little precipitation is able to infiltrate the deep aquifers through layers of much less permeable shale. So even while climate change is powering more frequent and intense storms, increasing precipitation in the region hasn’t solved the shortfall. Additionally, a fault zone near Joliet may block additional water from reaching the aquifers.
The wells of many neighboring communities could also be at risk. When those communities will need to find a different water source — in 10 years, 20 years or more — depends on what happens next.
Water has long been tossed around as a resource capable of creating conflict. Now communities are seeking solutions for a shrinking groundwater supply.
Running out of water
More than 600 miles of water main snake through Joliet to deliver 19 million gallons of water from more than two dozen wells. In less than a decade, that system could be in trouble.
After years of studies, forums and the whittling down of 14 options to two, the Joliet City Council voted at a late January meeting to choose Chicago over Hammond to pipe in Lake Michigan water.
“I truly believe it’s the biggest decision any Joliet council has ever made,” Councilman Larry Hug said at the meeting. “Going back to incorporation in 1852.”
Hug cast the lone vote for Hammond, arguing it was the cheaper long-term option, but with the rest of the council’s backing, Chicago landed the deal.
Some residents thought the control inherent with the Indiana option, which would involve piping untreated water to Joliet, made it superior; others worried crossing state lines was risky. Some felt their preferred choice of river water was too quickly written off. Some grumbled the decision was coming at the last moment. Others urged it was too rushed.
The cost of inaction was outlined at the meeting by Allison Swisher, Joliet’s director of public utilities.
“To put it bluntly, if we did nothing then our wells on the far west side would fail,” Swisher said. “They wouldn’t pump water. And we would not be able to meet the demands of the city. So we would have to initially implement watering restrictions and then as time progressed there would not be water.”
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is reviewing Joliet’s application for Lake Michigan water but declined interview requests, saying that during the review, the department is “not conducting interviews related to the Joliet petition and water supply in the region.”
The Chicago project is estimated to cost Joliet between $600 million and $800 million, depending on whether regional partners join. That means $24 million to $37 million in annual revenue for Chicago. The Chicago City Council approved the preliminary 100-year, billion-dollar deal this week.
Joliet, one the state’s largest cities, will join 120 customers and be Chicago’s largest individual direct customer.
The deal will “benefit generations of Chicagoans to come,” Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett told the Finance Committee this week.
“Taking off my city of Chicago hat, I truly believe that this is a good thing for the region,” Bennett said in an interview.
Bennett said the Joliet deal was an important step in strengthening regional water collaboration and could allow the city to gain more customers.
But this kind of project may be a hardship for some residents in Joliet, where officials said they’re looking at affordability programs.
“People tend to become aware of their water source when their community puts a big bond issue in front of them and they have to contemplate a rapidly rising rate over the next 20 or 30 years,” said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “And that’s how it hits home where your water comes from.”
Jamilah Brocks, a Joliet resident who’s so distrustful of her tap water she doesn’t use it to cook, said she welcomes the switch to Lake Michigan water. But, Brocks said, she’s a minimum-wage worker, and her main concern is a price increase after a pandemic year that has left many people just getting by.
“It would definitely put a strain on things,” Brocks said. “It’s not something I really want to handle, or something I’m excited about. But I’ll be OK. I’m not so sure about others.
“I just hope they keep in mind that everybody isn’t able,” Brocks said.
At the meeting, Cesar Guerrero, a 25-year-old Joliet native running for city council, said the existential threat isn’t not having water, but being able to afford that water. He’s since urged residents to sign a petition to cap water costs and implement a tiered-rate system.
Guerrero said Joliet’s communities of color are used to feeling overlooked in city hall decisions; part of his motivation to run was the lack of Latino representation on city council, despite making up 30% of the city’s population. He questioned why the city wasn’t more proactive decades ago.
“We’re now facing a situation in which there apparently is no alternative but to increase prices,” Guerrero said. “And I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s incredibly unjustified to place the burden on residents of the city.”
More than a century ago, the aquifers were so full that when wells were drilled, water shot up above ground.
“You didn’t even have to put a pump in,” said Abrams, with the Illinois State Water Survey. “Now some of those water levels are 900 to 1,000 feet below land surface.”
Water is stored underground between bedrock layers, where deep sandstone aquifers, some 200-feet thick, hold water like a sponge. Water in the aquifer is under pressure, and drilling releases the pressure, forcing water up into a well.
By the time water arrives in a well from areas in north-central Illinois where the aquifers are closer to the surface, it can be 100 years or older.
Hundreds of communities in the state still rely solely on groundwater. In northeastern Illinois, some draw from the two deep sandstone aquifers, shallow aquifers or a mix.
As far back as 1948, the Chicago Tribune reported warnings from the water survey chief that Chicago-area well levels were plunging 7 feet a year, with Joliet among the dehydrated bull’s-eyes.
“In the Joliet area both municipal and industrial users draw water from the deep sandstone, where a cone of depression in water levels has been created by the exploitation,” the report said. “The local overdevelopment is causing an added burden of cost for the city and is requiring the municipality to seek water elsewhere, probably from Lake Michigan.”
Withdrawals in the state were near their peak in 1980, when demands on the sandstone aquifers topped 260 million gallons per day. Northeastern Illinois’ withdrawals were about two-thirds of that total. The most recent sustainable yield for this region is estimated to be about 50 million gallons per day.
By 2012, statewide demand dropped by nearly 100 million gallons, in part because many communities switched to Lake Michigan, worried about water quantity and quality. Naturally occurring radium is a widespread problem in the deeper wells.
“It’s expensive to treat,” Abrams said. “On top of the headache of having an unsustainable supply, it’s not the world’s most perfect water that’s coming out to begin with.”
But withdrawals in some counties in northeastern Illinois with growing populations and industrial demands increased.
An extensive 2015 study from the water survey that looked at public, commercial, industrial and irrigation wells in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois found the upper sandstone aquifer, known as the St. Peter, was partially desaturated in areas including Will County.
That much missing water can cause a slew of problems, from small wells running dry to pumping sand. Liners, like Band-Aids, are used to prevent the St. Peter from caving in, but in recent decades most new wells in the southwest suburbs are open only to the lower sandstone aquifer, known as the Ironton- Galesville.
Now some of those wells are at risk of becoming inoperable as water levels drop. And drilling deeper isn’t a viable option.
In 2003, Joliet leaders said state officials told them there was enough water for 20 to 100 years, according to Tribune reporting, and the city planned to keep using the deep aquifers.
“When you say 20 to 100 years, it’s like saying you don’t know,” said Dennis Duffield, then Joliet’s public works and utilities director.
Modern modeling offers greater precision, and Abrams said scientists have worked to better communicate with town officials.
As for the question of “when,” Abrams said he flips it around: “When do you think a new well might go in here? Or when do you think this portion of your town might grow? Those are the kind of things that you have to understand to truly understand when.”
A regional effort
Today, Joliet accounts for significant demand on the deep aquifers southwest of Chicago, but the city’s exit won’t make up for all the withdrawn water, according to findings from the water survey. Even if all pumping stopped, it could take centuries for the aquifers to recharge.
“That’s water that will be missing in the long term, and the more that’s removed, the harder it’s going to be for communities,” Abrams said.
In the next year, Joliet will try to convince nearby municipalities to join a regional plan to offset costs of piping in Lake Michigan water.
Swisher, Joliet’s director of public utilities, said the vision has always been that Joliet, as the largest community in the area with resources that some smaller communities lack, needed to take the lead on a regional system.
“Because it does ultimately benefit everyone, including Joliet ratepayers,” Swisher said. “The more people that we have on this system, then the lower everyone’s bills are going to be.”
As part of the complex water brokerage system in Illinois, which includes public providers like Chicago as well as private companies, a community can purchase its water two or three times removed from the original source. So Joliet could buy water from Chicago and then resell it to other communities. It also could create a water commission, in which multiple communities would have a voice, as was the case in DuPage County.
By 2050, models indicate growing risk to wells supplying the Minooka, Shorewood and Channahon area, which together could see water demands triple.
Channahon is on a looser timeline than Joliet, said Ed Dolezal, the village’s director of public works. “But in the big scheme of things, it’s inevitable, it looks like, that we’re going to have a problem too,” he said.
The village is comparing costs for options, including Lake Michigan water from Joliet.
“The number one concern is that we have a sustainable water supply moving 100 years into the future,” Dolezal said.
Shorewood, which uses a mix of deep and shallow wells, has already prepared for a switch to Lake Michigan water, said Village Administrator Jim Culotta. They’ve been engineering a transmission main, and construction could begin in a few years. The village originally planned to connect to the private company Illinois American Water but is also looking at options including the DuPage Water Commission, and now Joliet.
“We, too, believe that a regional type of solution is likely,” Culotta said. “And there’s more than one regional solution out there.”
Also among Joliet’s potential partners is Oswego, which is looking at a similar timeline as Joliet and considering the Fox River or Lake Michigan water, said Jennifer Hughes, the village’s public works director.
“Right now residents can turn on their faucets and water comes out,” Hughes said. “We don’t have issues with the supply today. So the challenge is to let them know that there is a problem that they can’t see, that’s going to impact them.”
Planning ahead is critical, Hughes said. The last thing they want is to be turning on their new source the day after they run out of water. The community has experienced growth in recent decades and is bracing for more.
“If we have a manufacturing company that wanted to come here and we can’t supply them water, they’re going to go somewhere else,” Hughes said. “And we need to make sure that we have a stable tax base for our community.”
Still, Hughes said, communities in the region are lucky to have a choice.
“We’re fortunate that we can have a debate,” Hughes said. “A lot of places don’t have two options.”
Some desiccated areas in the western United States face parched rivers — or hedge funds buying up land with water rights. Even some cities closer to Lake Michigan than Joliet have had to fight for access.
The Milwaukee suburb Waukesha was the first to test the Great Lakes Compact, a landmark agreement among Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces that prohibits municipalities from outside the Great Lakes basin from taking water, with limited exceptions. Faced with well water contaminated by radium and in a county straddling the basin, Waukesha fought for years before gaining approval in 2016 to build a pipeline to access Lake Michigan water.
But Illinois is governed by a 1967 Supreme Court decree that stems from the reversal of the Chicago River and allows communities outside the Lake Michigan watershed to tap into lake water.
Overall, Lake Michigan pumping is on the decline. That trend is expected to continue, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s On to 2050 water demand forecast. Looking ahead, advocates urged comprehensive water supply planning, equitable rate studies, systems to assess the ecological impact of water removal and federal support.
Dan Injerd, the state’s former director of water resources, still leans optimistic.
“We have water that probably is the envy of the rest of the world,” Injerd said. “As long as we use it sensibly, and I think especially pay attention to what we do with it after we use it, in terms of how it’s treated and released, this is a region that should never, ever, ever have water quantity problems.”
But communities want stability, he said. It’s no small advantage to go to sleep at night knowing your water supply is not likely to fail.
“You don’t want to think, well, we can get by for another year. Or, let’s do a little work on a well,” Injerd said.
In the coming years, Joliet will be keeping an eye on well levels, prepared to make short-term fixes if needed, hoping that will be enough to make it through the decade.