For suburbs, water limits, propels
Rules benefit Chicago, hurt Wisconsin cities
By Don Behm
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
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
"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
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
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.
The reason that northeastern Illinois communities can
buy lake water while southeastern Wisconsin municipalities
go wanting for the same reliable resource is based in
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
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
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
Why is so much water - once intended for flushing sewage
away from Chicago - now going through suburban drinking
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.
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
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
But she's not holding her breath.