Water Law Needs Overhaul

A group from McHenry County, the Alliance for Land, Agriculture and Water (A-LAW) is trying to get a referendum on the April ballot that would establish a water authority in rural areas of Boone, DeKalb and (most of) McHenry county. Court hearings currently are being held in DeKalb County to determine the boundaries of the proposed authority.

The proposal has caused a huge uproar among municipal governments (see here, here and here for examples).

Several officials have called the proposal “scary.” Here’s why. The Kishwaukee Valley Water Authority (KVWA) would consist of only three persons, one appointed by each county board. But this very small number of unelected trustees would have the power to permit or not permit any well that serves more than four families, annex territory, collect taxes as a special district, even exercise rights of eminent domain and sell water to whomever they want.

These powers are conferred by the Illinois Water Authorities Act of 1951 (ILCS 3715). Supporters of the proposal point out that the Act provides a mechanism for transforming these appointed positions into elected ones. But while it only takes 500 voter signatures to get the original proposal for an authority on the ballot, it takes 10% of the voters in an established authority to sign a petition for an election proposition. In other words, thousands of signers would be be required for that step.

At 55 years old, the Act is clearly not set up to fit the newer trend toward regional planning.

Here are the 2006 members of the Illinois Water Authority Association:














As you can see, most water authorities operate very locally, typically at the township level. Even the larger-sounding ones, e.g., Imperial Valley, only covers one county plus a tad more. When I looked to see which water authority looks after the mighty Mahomet Aquifer, it’s actually eight of them united as the Mahomet Aquifer Consortium (MAC) that protect this crucial source of groundwater.

The east-central Illinois MAC is one of two priority regions for water planning identified by the governor’s office. The other is the Northeast Illinois Region now covered by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) that involves Cook, DuPage, Kane, Will, McHenry, Kendall and Lake counties. However, a new three-year regional water supply “planning initiative” adds DeKalb, Boone, Grundy and Kankakee to the mix, even though these additional counties do not enjoy representation on the CMAP board .

I suggest that McHenry County has the biggest stake in this matter.

A McHenry County funded comprehensive report on ground water, recently completed by consultants, confirmed the biggest issue facing this region is future availability of water. The report identified several heavily populated and growing townships on the east half of McHenry County that are projected to suffer water shortages by 2020 and more townships facing shortages by 2030.

McHenry County consultants suggest one major answer is to move the water from areas of abundance to those of need in McHenry County. This means piping water from the west parts of the County, located in the Kishwaukee Watershed, to towns in the east that are water short.[Emphasis added.]

Proposed Water Authority

Dekalb County has a really good overall handle on planning–unlike eastern McHenry County. As you can see from the map, these eastern townships are not included in the KVWA. Obviously, this is an attempt to keep the “rampant growth” area from being subsidized by more water-rich areas. Is this a good strategy? I think not. Although there might be some advantage in theory for uniting those who share the same groundwater sources, we are talking about three unelected people deciding the “water fates” of a tremendous group. We should have a thicker layer of protection between our aqua-teat and all these water-sucking counties that don’t know the meaning of managed growth and conservation.

Unless and until the Water Authorities Act is amended to provide adequately for regional planning, I suggest that additional water authorities (if we need them at all) be county- or township-based, and form a consortium with other authorities within the CMAP planning area (and how about representation on the CMAP board, while we’re at it?). This is the only way that such powers are not based in too-few hands.