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Great Lakes Article:

For suburbs, water limits, propels growth
Rules benefit Chicago, hurt Wisconsin cities
By Don Behm
07/14/03


When it comes to drinking water choices, Waukesha Mayor Carol Lombardi wishes that she wore the shoes of Naperville, Ill., Mayor George Pradel.

Pradel and other residents of Naperville, a fast-growing community 40 miles from the Lake Michigan shoreline, drink about 18 million gallons per day of water pumped from the lake.

Lombardi, whose community is located half that distance from the lake, faces myriad water problems with her city's groundwater - the most significant being an expected cost of tens of millions of dollars to remove radioactive radium from city wells.

Waukesha lies west of the sub-continental divide that marks the edge of the basin that drains into Lake Michigan and, for that reason, likely will never receive a drop of lake water, under a federal law and international agreement.

Numerous other eastern Wisconsin communities with well water problems - from Waterford in Racine County to Hartford in Washington County - also face costly investments for removing radium or finding other sources of water. They, too, are denied access to the lake.

But the same rules do not apply to northeastern Illinois communities outside the lake's drainage basin where generous allocations of lake water have fueled growth.

Nearly 7 million northeastern Illinois residents - more than half of the state's total population - now consume lake water, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

"The Chicago metropolitan area would not be what it is today without the diversion of lake water to the suburbs," said Dan Injerd, state water resource manager and supervisor of the program that allocates water use among competing interests. "Lake water supports growth and development."

Suburban Illinois municipalities throughout DuPage and Will counties - including Plainfield, Naperville, Wheaton, Roselle, Mokena and others more than 25 miles from the lake shore - depend on the lake to nurture growth, local officials said.

Chicago and other water utilities serve municipalities as customers and reap the profits. Chicago alone filters 1 billion gallons of water per day for residents of the city and 124 other communities. About 200 Illinois municipalities tap into the lake, Injerd said.

Long history

The reason that northeastern Illinois communities can buy lake water while southeastern Wisconsin municipalities go wanting for the same reliable resource is based in history.

In 1885, more than 90,000 Chicago residents - 12% of the population - died in cholera and typhoid epidemics after heavy rains flushed sewage into the lake and contaminated the water supply.

So, in 1900, Chicago created a major water diversion by reversing the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan. Sewage was carried downstream toward the Des Plaines River and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.

Milwaukee did not follow suit in building a canal or reversing the flow of one of its rivers, though it, too, faced recurring outbreaks of typhoid fever and cholera due to sewage contaminating the near shore area of the lake that it tapped for its water supply.

Wisconsin, instead, joined other Great Lakes states in attempting to reduce or halt the Chicago diversion.

It didn't work.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed Chicago could not take more than 3,200 cubic feet per second out of the lake and some of that could be used for public drinking supplies.

By 1980, the high court amended its earlier decree by authorizing Illinois to allocate use of the water between competing interests of public drinking water, navigation and carrying treated sewage downstream.

The rush for water was on.

Naperville City Manager Peter Burchard today boasts that lake water is "one of the most important assets of our community" and "essential for Naperville's success."

Naperville, straddling the border of DuPage and Will counties, made the switch from wells to the lake in the early 1990s. Its 2003 allocation of Lake Michigan water is 18.8 million gallons per day.

Community wells in northwestern Cook County either were running dry or were picking up contaminants as water tables plunged because of heavy pumping in the early 1980s.

Hoffman Estates stopped using its wells in the mid-1980s and joined several neighbors in tapping the lake supply. This year Hoffman Estates is allocated a little more than 5.6 million gallons per day, and its continued access to this supply enables development to spread west into Kane County - to the same Fox River that runs through Waukesha.

Why is so much water - once intended for flushing sewage away from Chicago - now going through suburban drinking faucets?

Because advances in sewage treatment have meant less water is needed for that purpose. So more is available for drinking. In fact, this year fully 54% of the Chicago diversion will be consumed by the public, said Injerd, of the Illinois DNR. By 2020, that allocation could jump to nearly 66% of the diversion.

Still necessary?

Given advances in wastewater treatment technologies since 1900, the Lake Michigan Federation questions whether the diversion is necessary.

"Why not stop it?," asks Cameron Davis, executive director of the Chicago-based environmental group.

While 3,200 cubic feet per second of water might seem like an insignificant portion of the second-largest of the Great Lakes, holding a volume of more than 1,180 cubic miles of water, Davis argues that every cubic foot of it is precious and should be held in the lake to protect its shoreline environment and for future generations.

In addition, Davis said, sewer overflows to the lake at Chicago have not been eliminated even with the diversion. In 2002, about 1.5 billion gallons of treated wastewater was sent to the lake after heavy rains overwhelmed the capacity of the the sanitary canal, according to Davis.

Still, he acknowledged that the combined economic interests of commercial shipping on the canal and downstream rivers and the communities receiving drinking water from the lake would make it impossible now to end the diversion.

And so the continuing good fortune of Chicago suburbs attracts the covetous eyes of southeastern Wisconsin officials.

Upstream of Hoffman Estates, Lombardi says Waukesha is the largest city facing a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandate to reduce the amount of radioactive radium in the water it serves residents from wells. This federal regulation could cost the city between $75 million and $135 million for some of the options being considered, from treating the water to remove radium to drilling distant wells in an untainted aquifer.

A different federal law and international agreements prevent Waukesha from a less expensive option - asking Milwaukee or Oak Creek to sell it water from the lake.

Pumping water out of the basin to Waukesha would be considered a new diversion and require approval of each of the Great Lakes states, under the U.S. Water Resources Development Act of 1986. A separate Great Lakes charter requires a state seeking any new diversion of more than 5 million gallons per day to notify and seek the consent of the other Great Lakes states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

A 1998 attempt to ship water from Lake Superior to Asia galvanized the states to seek even more effective restrictions on new diversions.

Ontario provincial officials approved a permit for Nova Group of Sault Saint Marie to remove 60 million gallons per year from Superior. Tankers would transport the water to Asia, where it would be bottled for consumers.

A public uproar throughout the Great Lakes region, including Wisconsin, prompted Ontario to rescind the permit.

The Council of Great Lakes Governors began studying legal obstacles to diversion restraints and, in June 2001, those governors and the premiers of Ontario and Quebec signed a Great Lakes Charter Annex.

The annex committed the states and provinces to develop new binding agreements for Great Lakes water use by June 2004.

Lombardi hopes that the process will allow communities under the burden of federal drinking water standards to seek relief from the lake. "The federal law and the charter should weigh the need for clean water," she said.

But she's not holding her breath.

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