Outlying counties warned about water
Growth to affect quality, supply
By William Grady
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."