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Great Lakes Article:

Outlying counties warned about water
Growth to affect quality, supply
By William Grady
Chicago Tribune
Published December 13th, 2004

For decades, Neill Emmons and his wife, Parkie, have watched over a stretch of Big Rock Creek, which meanders through their wooded property on the outskirts of Plano, in fast-growing Kendall County.

The landscape speaks of family memories and a creek that has altered its course at times over the years. But recent changes and the creek's future are more of a concern these days to Emmons and his wife.

The water seems to be digging a deeper channel, fed by increased storm runoff as pastures upstream are plowed for crops and cropland is mapped for subdivisions. More runoff means less water is seeping into the ground to recharge the aquifers that supply water for subdivisions and shopping centers on Chicago's suburban frontier.

"What worries one is when you start putting in subdivisions, you get an awful lot of grass, and you wouldn't think that's a problem, but grass has short roots and doesn't absorb water," said Emmons, 87, a retired investment banker who has been a steward of the 60 acres on which he and his wife have lived since 1964.

"We're likely to have water problems--not being able to produce enough water for the number of people who are going to be here," he said.

The threat to groundwater supplies is one of the concerns raised in a new report, to be released Thursday, on a wide range of water issues facing a 12-county region in northern Illinois, home to more than two-thirds of the state's population.

The report warns of potential shortages unless developers change their ways as new subdivisions push outward into Boone, DeKalb, Grundy, Kankakee, Kendall and LaSalle Counties--beyond the traditional six Chicago-area counties and beyond the likely reach of Lake Michigan water.

The yearlong study was done by the Metropolitan Planning Council and Openlands Project, Chicago-based not-for-profit groups that are part of a coalition called the Campaign for Sensible Growth. The study was funded by the Joyce Foundation.

The report also includes the results of a survey of 120 towns in the region, which suggests that many communities don't understand that their land-use decisions have an impact on water resources.

"There is a growing awareness of the issues out there, but do the ordinances match the rhetoric?" said Scott Goldstein, vice president of policy and planning for the Metropolitan Planning Council. "We think that if local practices are not changed, we will drain the aquifers and there will be critical shortages."

Called "Changing Course," the report recommends that Illinois lawmakers take steps to better protect wetlands throughout the state, that the state Environmental Protection Agency pay more attention to pollution from runoff before allowing communities to expand areas served by their sewage-treatment plants, and that counties and towns incorporate watershed planning into their zoning ordinances.

The two groups also urge communities to adopt new regulations that would slow the increase in pavement and other hard surfaces by allowing narrower streets and smaller parking lots in new residential and commercial developments.

"The lesson is clear," the report says. "Improving and protecting water quality have as much to do with how we choose to develop as whether to develop. Poorly planned low-density development will result in more destruction over larger areas than well-planned conservation development in appropriate locations."

Solutions include clustering homes in a development to preserve more open space and using landscaped swales along subdivision streets instead of curbs and gutters, said Richard Acker, regional land-use coordinator for Openlands.

If development practices are not changed, he said, people will be buying homes in subdivisions that may face water shortages in 10 to 15 years or experience floods that are more frequent because natural areas have been paved over.

"The way that we have grown and done business in the past has not worked in the long run and will not work for protecting water quality--will not work for protecting drinking water," Acker said.

For many in the Chicago area, Lake Michigan is a seemingly inexhaustible source of water, and the runoff from rain or melting snow is seen as something that needs to be drained as quickly as possible into the nearest river or stream.

But shallow and deep wells provide about 15 percent of the region's water needs and are the primary source in high-growth areas, the report says. In those areas, sending runoff downstream, instead of allowing it to seep into the ground and replenish aquifers, could lead to future water shortages.

A study three years ago by the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission warned of potential shortages by 2020 in a dozen townships in Cook, DuPage, Kane, McHenry and Will Counties. The commission noted that demand for water was expected to increase most on the western edge of the Chicago area, which is unlikely to be served by Lake Michigan water.

Some counties are taking steps to address concerns about future water supplies.

Kane County is spending $2.2 million over five years to study available groundwater resources and how best to safeguard them. Similar studies are under way in Kendall and McHenry Counties.

The issues in McHenry County are the size of the aquifers and the potential for contamination.

Lenore Beyer-Clow, executive director of the McHenry County Defenders, an environmental group in Woodstock, said: "I think people are beginning to recognize that there are limits as to what the water supplies can sustain as to population."

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