Water: Fight, or Just Fix It

Recently I’ve been writing about the April referendum that asks whether most of DeKalb, Boone and McHenry counties should form the Kishwaukee Valley Water Authority (KVWA). “Water Law Needs Overhaul” looks at current applications of the Illinois Water Authorities Act and implications for KVWA; and “Care & Feeding of Aquifers” explores groundwater issues discussed recently by a panel hosted by DeKalb County’s Planning & Zoning Commission. Dr. Jack Wittman, a hydrologist and president of a drought-planning company, was there and has now clarified his views in the Midweek, our local weekly paper.

Wittman is based in Indiana but grew up around here. He seems to be interested both as a professional and as a former neighbor. As  described in the “aquifer” article, as part of the panel he was reluctant to stray from the elements of planning to get into the politics. This is not so in his Midweek op-ed piece.

It is my opinion that the proposed Kishwaukee Valley Water Authority is a certain formula for a [sic] jurisdictional fights that will continue for the next 50 years. With the possibilities of drought and the certainties of regional growth, DeKalb County should dodge the fight and deal with the problem. The way to gets things done is to roll up your sleeves and figure it out. Simple, straight, common sense.

One reason for the fight is that the proposed use of the water authorities law is unprecedented. Although the Illinois Water Authorities Act is over 50 years old, it has mostly been used at the township level and most successfully used when those affected have a shared common usage.

The “fix or fight” choice rings true at the local level, too. The KVWA boundary hearings were quite contentious, and there is talk of the larger municipalities taking the matter to court if the referendum passes. Meanwhile, the county Farm Bureaus support the authority. (There is no reason for farmers to dislike the idea; their water supply would ostensibly be protected while their  activities would be exempt from water authority regulation.) I’ve been told by an in-the-know person that the previously amicable relationship between the cities and the farmers already has deteriorated.

That is a shame and I hope that we can reach a consensus that hashing out the law is a waste when we already have the organization in place to plan and that’s the county. Wittman suggests DeKalb County should become its own water authority because the lines of jurisdiction and responsibility are already well established. I agree. Also, it’s in a better position to coordinate comprehensive water supply planning efforts with those for land use and transportation. Wittman says we should be asking, “What can a water authority do better than the county?” and warns against citizens’ ceding their rights to an untested, unelected body.

Fees are now assessed on public drinking water wells by water authorities. Recently a water authority in downstate Illinois requested a $30,000 fee for a city to replace their well. The irony is that the well needed to be replaced because it had become polluted with agricultural chemicals from neighboring agricultural land. Is this fair?

It’s an example of the broad powers given to authorities under the Illinois Water Authorities Act. Here’s another one:

6. To supplement the existing water supply or provide additional water supply by such means as may be practicable or feasible. They may acquire property or property rights either within or without the boundaries of the authority by purchase, lease, condemnation proceedings or otherwise, and they may construct, maintain and operate wells, reservoirs, pumping stations, purification plants, infiltration pits, recharging wells and such other facilities as may be necessary to insure an adequate supply of water for the present and future needs of the authority. They shall have the right to sell water to municipalities or public utilities operating water distribution systems either within or without the authority. [Emphases added.]

Apply those powers to the current reality (Wittman again):

Regionally there is a water supply problem. Water use from Milwaukee to Gary has caused groundwater levels in the deep aquifers to fall by more than 700 feet since development. According to recent work by the Illinois State Water Survey, the deep bedrock aquifer is being overused. At the same time, shallow aquifer supplies appear to exceed demands in DeKalb County.

Boone County’s future water growth, according to Wittman, is expected to be primarily in irrigated agriculture, which would remain unregulated. If Boone overuses its shallow aquifers for this purpose, what would stop the authority from pumping DeKalb’s to sell in Boone? As I’m reading things, absolutely nothing. What’s worse, it would again put us into fighting mode.

Also, McHenry County is considering putting an ethanol plant near Richmond. If McHenry took Sangamon County’s lead and allowed ethanol plants on land zoned for agriculture, that would allow the unregulated sucking of a million or two gallons of water per day. Even if that didn’t happen, other levels of government are giving ethanol a pass and I see nothing stopping KVWA itself from exempting ethanol as an agricultural use–the difference is, authority trustees wouldn’t answer to us for it. Back to court.

DeKalb’s water is a prize and with only one trustee to represent it on KVWA could be outvoted by the other two on how to distribute our wealth.

As for regional water supply planning, the organization for that is already in place, too, in the form of northeast Illinois’ Regional Water Supply Planning Group (RWSPG). DeKalb is represented on RWSPG. KVWA proponents say that this effort will take too long, but RWSPG’s mission is to complete a 50-year projection and plan in the next three. Overseen by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, RWSPG is a nn unprecedented pilot program created just last year by the governor’s executive order. It is partnered with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Illinois State Water Survey and the Illinois State Geological Survey to match water usage forecasts with water supply forecasts and plan accordingly, their focus on the deep bedrock, Fox River Basin and surface waters in the region.

RWSPG has access to state resources and a deadline for a complete plan in June 2009. To echo Jack Wittman’s question, what could a water authority do better than this established regional planning group?