Rachel Layne is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in CBS News, USA Today and other outlets. She can be reached at [email protected].
When U.S. water scarcity comes up, the catastrophic drought conditions in the West and the dwindling Colorado River basin may spring to mind first. Yet some 31 miles southwest of Chicago’s Lake Michigan shore, the city of Joliet, Illinois, is sprinting to build a brand new system to tap the biggest freshwater source on earth by 2030.
That is when the area’s deep sandstone aquifers will be so depleted that Joliet’s wells will not effectively be able to bring water to the city of more than 147,000. Groundwater scientists from the Illinois State Water Survey first predicted this in 2015 using updated modeling techniques.
“Water seems so plentiful where we are. And so it’s not something that people think about. But the aquifer issue is definitely one that impacts this whole region,” said Allison Swisher, Joliet director of public utilities.
Swisher, who arrived in Joliet in 2013, is helping to shepherd the massive migration from wells to Lake Michigan for water to supply for Joliet and potentially the broader region. Predictions in the early 2000s estimated the water would last another 75 years, so Joliet thought it had more time, she said.
By July, 2018, the city was searching for another source. In March 2019, Joliet unveiled its public information hub, rethinkwaterjoliet.org. And in January 2021 after narrowing 14 possible alternate sources to two, Joliet’s city council voted to buy Chicago’s treated water over building a whole new system from the shores of Hammond, Indiana.
Preliminary design is underway for an addition that will bring water from Chicago’s Southwest Pumping station along a newly constructed route to Joliet for an estimated $600 million to $800 million, including a 31-mile pipeline to the city and upgrades to Chicago’s station.
Joliet hired Stantec, a project management and design firm, to steer the project, along with subcontractors Crawford, Murphy & Tilly, Cornwell Engineering Group, Engineering Enterprises, Images, Strand Associates and V3 Companies.
The preliminary agreement with Chicago calls for Chicago to supply 30 million to 90 million gallons per day (mgd) based on projected uses. Joliet is also talking with a dozen nearby communities about forming a regional water board.
In addition to the capital costs, Joliet will pay Chicago $24 million to $37 million annually beginning in 2030 for the water. Over 100 years, that is about $1 billion in today’s dollars, according to Chicago’s press release announcing the preliminary contract. Chicago brings water to about 125 communities. Joliet will be second to fourth largest in that system, said Chicago’s chief financial officer Jennie Huang Bennett at a February finance committee hearing.
Why Is The Water Running Out?
During bursts of development, like in the early 2000s, Joliet grew, which accelerated the water level’s drop, according to Daniel Abrams, co-author of the ISWS studies.
Drawdowns from the aquifer deep beneath northern Illinois and part of nearby Wisconsin, called the Cambrian-Ordovician, are exceeding the aquifer’s ability to replenish itself.
Layers of shale and unweathered carbonates mean surface water does not penetrate into the aquifer that has supplied the region for more than a century. Water levels in the Cambrian-Ordovician have declined by hundreds of feet, slowly depriving the borehole heads of pressure that once sent water spewing upwards into Joliet’s wells, the ISWS study found.
As technology to measure water levels improved, so did the precision and urgency of Joliet’s timetable. Of Joliet’s 26 wells, 21 draw from the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. The rest take water from closer to the surface, which is increasingly susceptible to contamination.
“The most important thing for people to understand is that because the aquifer is so deep, when there are major rain events, that rainfall is not making its way into the aquifer,” Abrams said. “And that’s why the withdrawals in that area, in particular, because of the depth of the aquifer, resulted in such a major drawdown.”
There are signs wells are “reaching the end of their life throughout the region,” he added. “We’ve talked with a lot of communities. We do now understand where wells are really struggling to meet supply. And those declines continue.”
Joliet’s system currently treats well water via 11 plants. It also has three wastewater treatment plants. The city will maintain that as a backup for a 14-day reserve should service from the Chicago system be interrupted, according to an updated ISWS report.
From the Chicago southwest tunnel system, Joliet will build a new tunnel extension, low-service pumping station, meter vault, suction well, high-service station and transmission main for the 30-some odd miles to Joliet where it will feed into the city’s 655 miles of water mains, ranging from 4 inches in diameter to 24 inches.
Even when Joliet stops tapping the aquifer, the remaining communities that use it account for 58% of the demands in the region, the ISWS report notes. Eventually, communities could pay to hook up to the new system.
“The major question being asked by communities and industries is whether the decrease in regional demands when Joliet no longer uses the aquifer will be enough to offset an increase in local demands as other communities grow in the coming decades,” the ISWS report also states.
Funding so far
To pay for the massive project, Joliet will start by applying for low-cost loans through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Water Infrastructure and Finance Innovation Act (WIFIA). WIFIA loans are tied to treasury bond rates at the time an agreement is signed, typically at lower interest rates than municipal bonds or bank loans.
WIFIA criteria is strict. For one, applicants must prove they can pay the loan back over time, an essential element
“At a very high level, Joliet did a good job of explaining how this new alternative water supply project fit well into EPA, statutory, regulatory and policy criteria,” said Jorianne Jernberg, WIFIA management program’s acting director. “That as well as showing that they were technically feasible and credit worthy, is ultimately why and how EPA selected the project.”
Joliet can use up to 49% of authorized WIFIA loans to fund the project. As of July, Joliet had been invited to apply for more than $731 million in WIFIA loans, one in April and the other in fiscal 2019. The city also expects to seek funds from the Illinois State Revolving Fund loan program.
WIFIA mandates participants fund 51% of a project from other sources. So the loans are designed to attract private equity, bonds, corporate debt, grants and state funds. Established in 2014, WIFIA offers flexible terms, including loan extensions and flexible payback schedules.
To repay the loans, Joliet needs to raise water rates. A 2021 average monthly water bill of $34 would rise to $90 to $93 per month by 2030. If a regional group of water users are established, it would rise to an estimated $75 to $79, a June presentation showed.
Rising rates are a concern, especially with 17% of Joliet’s residents with incomes so low they fall below federal poverty guidelines. To that end, Joliet is looking at programs to cut costs and water use, including efficient heaters, a conservation campaign and strategies in other cities like Philadelphia, Swisher said.
The city is also stepping up publicity because most people only pay attention to water prices when the bill arrives.
Seeking Water Withdraw Approval
For any of it to work, Joliet must get approval to withdraw water from Lake Michigan from the Illinois State Department of Natural Resources under the Great Lakes Compact. Diversion from Lake Michigan in Illinois is regulated under the Level of Lake Michigan Act, in effect since 1980 following a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court Decree. Joliet applied for the diversion in 2020.
To become a Lake Michigan water user, Joliet must reduce to 10% “non-revenue” water use, which includes water that leaves the system through leaks, fire hydrants or unauthorized use. From 2016 to 2019, Joliet’s non-revenue use was 32.4% to 34.9%, based on the American Water Works Association methodology for measuring non-revenue water use, according to city documents.
As part of that process, Joliet is replacing its own water mains faster, spending $34 million annually over the next eight years. The idea, Swisher said, is to replace 3.2% of water mains annually, up from 1%.
In a press release from Illinois Congressman Bill Foster whose district includes Joliet, he said U.S. House lawmakers proposed allocating $3.5 million for water main work. Foster is pressing for funds to be included in legislation for fiscal 2022, which begins in October.
Joliet is also on a rigorous preliminary design schedule for 2021. The initial design assumes a maximum demand of 44 mgd for 2030 and 60 mgd by 2050 (adjustable in final designs). It can be expanded to more than 104 mgd, according to a July 17 presentation. Tim Schweizer, a spokesperson for IDNR, declined to comment on Joliet’s application because it is still under review.