The House Environmental Affairs Committee has amended SB 389 to make some moderate changes to the law protecting Indiana’s wetlands, rather than deleting it altogether as the original bill proposed.
Tucked among the moderate changes, however, are a couple of more drastic ones. Protection for any wetland dependent on an ephemeral stream would be dropped. Also dropped is a statement from the 2003 law that the goal of mitigation is “a net gain in high quality wetlands.”
The Hoosier Environmental Council, in a detailed statement, urges members and the public to oppose any further amendments, to support the creation of a task force to study Indiana’s wetlands and to oppose the Senate version of SB 389, which would eliminate all regulation and protection of state wetlands.
The House is expected to vote a second time on the bill on Monday, April 12. The chart below, by the Hoosier Environmental Council, compares various versions of the bill.
Senate version 389
Indiana Wetlands Law
Amendment 24 Modifies
Class I wetlands
Class II wetlands
Class III wetlands
Significantly reduces requirements
Moderately reduces requirements
Wetlands that exist “only because of an ephemeral stream”
Development of cropland with wetland
all wetlands in cropland can be developed
If used for agriculture in the last 10 years
If used for agriculture in the last 10 years
Maintain a field tile within a wetland
all tiles in wetlands can be repaired
With a permit if it does not drain the wetland
With a permit if it does not drain the wetland
IDEM’s time to issue a wetland permit
Reduces from 120 to 90 days
Reduces from 120 to 90 days
Statement that the goal is “a net gain in high quality wetlands”
Senate Bill 389, which would end state regulation of dredging, filling, draining and discharging into most of Indiana’s wetlands, is scheduled for a hearing at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 7, before the Indiana House Environmental Affairs Committee, according to legislative media spokesman Jose DeFonce.
The bill also will include an amendment to be voted on. Dr. Indra Frank of the Hoosier Environmental Council described it: “Amendment 24 is much better than the original bill…, but it still reduces wetland protection. It’s not good, but we have been warned that if Amendment 24 doesn’t make it into the bill, then something worse will pass.” DeFonce said no testimony would be taken.
The bill as written has attracted substantial opposition from at least 80 groups representing hunting, fishing, the environment, water quality, flood control and boating. It’s supported by five groups representing builders, manufacturers, farmers and developers.
Opponents of a bill that would strip state protection from wetlands are hoping for an amendment that would significantly change it before the Indiana House votes on it.
Senate Bill 389, dubbed “the anti-wetlands bill” by opponents, easily passed the Republican-controlled Senate and is now in the House Environmental Affairs Committee, also dominated by Republicans. It proposes to end all permitting, mitigating and enforcement actions for dredging, filling, draining, dumping or discharging into all but federally protected wetlands, or roughly 80 percent in the state.
Time is short. This legislative session is to end on April 29. Senate Bill 389 is scheduled for a second reading in the House Environmental Affairs Committee on Monday, April 5. This is when any amendment would be voted on.
Since the draft amendment could change by then, legislators contacted declined to describe it before it is presented to the committee on Monday.
The bill has galvanized opposition from more than 80 groups representing duck, deer, pheasant and quail hunters, fishermen, boaters, environmentalists, conservation lawyers, landscape architects, boat manufacturers, trappers, gardeners, birders, flood control districts, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ and the Potawatomi Tribe.
Some 60 groups signed a letter to legislators full of wetland facts and suggestions for improving the current law, instead of just deleting it.
“I’ve not seen so many people moved by a call to action as this one,” Natalie Johnson, executive director of Save the Dunes, said.
Not even Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb could muster enthusiasm for it as currrently written.
“We need to be confident that any changes in the law avoid harming drinking water quality, increasing potential for flooding, or hurting wildlife habitats used by our anglers and hunters,” he told the IndyStar.
Supporters of the bill include five groups representing builders, developers and manufacturers. Dr. Indra Frank of the Hoosier Environmental Council said private property rights were one of the big drivers of support for it.
“Wetlands are the most cost-effective stormwater system we have,” she said, pointing out that a one-acre wetland can store a million gallons of water. If it’s filled in, neighboring properties could be flooded. “Wetlands are part of a whole water system that ignores property lines. It’s a shared resource.”
Sen. Karen Tallian, a Democrat from Ogden Dunes, said she hopes the bill simply will die in committee.
“I’m hoping we can see it turned into a two-year task force,” Rep. Sue Errington said. A Democrat from Muncie, she’s the ranking minority member on the House Environmental Affairs Committee. She imagines a task force comprising university scientists, expert on wetlands, government regulators, realtors and industry representatives.
“We could offer incentives to preserve a wetland, like a tax credit for that spot of land,” she said. “We have something similar for forests.”
Indiana’s Classified Forests and Wildlands Program gives landowners a tax reduction and technical assistance in return for following a professionally written land management program. A minimum of 10 acres of forest, wetland, shrubland and/or grassland is required.
Another approach to wetland protection is through municipal ordinances, Randy Jones, a wetlands consultant in Franklin, Ind., said. “It’s done in a few areas of Michigan and is common out West. A problem with local regulations is that they are commonly used in wealthier communities to protect the status quo, and could result in an inequitable distribution of habitat destruction and water quality impairments based on income.”
In Donaldson, Ind., four sisters of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ signed a letter to legislators “imploring” them to oppose SB 389. The order, comprising 640 women in nine countries, “has dedicated itself to protecting creation through ecological restoration and preservation. SB 389 would leave our wetlands vulnerable to be destroyed without oversight or discernment.”
In Porter County, environmental educator Billie Warren of the Pokagon Potawatomi said wetlands were essential to the tribe’s culture. “Our people, especially in this area, were known for getting all of our food, medicine and utilitarian items from wetlands.”
Warren will conduct a Water Ceremony of prayer at noon on Saturday, April 3, at Lake George in Hobart as part of a rally in opposition to SB 389. The rally is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. All who wear masks and maintain social distance are welcome to attend, she said.
Indiana Senate Bill 389, which would abolish the law protecting most of the states’s wetlands, was given a hearing in the House Environmental Affairs Committee the morning of Monday, March 22nd. Testimony was heard and the bill was held for further discussion.
Five groups, representing builders, farmers, manufacturers and energy, support the bill. Seventy-five groups, representing environmentalists, hunters and state wetlands regulators, oppose it. Without the law in place, wetlands could be bulldozed, drained, filled or discharged into without oversight, Indiana Department of Environmental Management spokesman Barry Sneed said.
For more information on what wetlands do and why they’re important, see the story below called, “The future of Indiana wetlands: bald eagles or bulldozers?”
Wetlands, some of Northwest Indiana’s most scenic territories, are targeted in a highly partisan bill that would strip them of state protection from pollution or destruction.
Senate Bill 389, presented by 26 Republicans, aims to delete the state law that covers wetlands which aren’t protected under the federal Clean Water Act. Different sources say 60 percent to 80 percent of the state’s wetlands rely on state protection.
Although wetlands cover just 3.5 percent of Indiana, they provide critical habitat for thousands of species of plants and birds, including geese and ducks. Iconic endangered species such as the whooping crane, the bald eagle and the red wolf also depend on wetlands, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
The economic impact on the region of its swamps, marshes and bogs is in the multi-millions of dollars annually. More than 98 million people hunt, fish, birdwatch, hike or photograph wildlife. Americans spend $59.5 billion annually on these activities, according to Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management (IDEM).
In addition, wetlands act as filters that improve the quality of drinking water and as sponges that soak up rain to prevent flooding.
“Wetlands also recharge our underground aquifers,” says IDEM spokesman Barry Sneed. “Over 70% of Indiana residents rely on ground water for part or all of their drinking water needs. Wetland reductions could impact the amount of water available in municipal and residential drinking water wells.”
“Because isolated wetlands are so critical to drinking water supplies, they are best protected within state law,” Kathy Luther, director of environmental programs for the Northern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, wrote in an email. “These wetlands are critical to recharge the groundwater that feeds springs and fills the aquifers used for irrigation wells and drinking water supplies in rural communities.”
These functions of wetlands were not well understood until the mid-twentieth century.
By 2011, 89 percent of the region’s wetlands had been lost since settlement in the 1800s. Most were dredged, filled or drained for farming or development. Only five other states (California, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and Ohio) have lost that much of their wetlands.
The Indiana law targeted for elimination requires a state permit before dredging, filling, dumping, bulldozing or discharging into wetlands. It also requires compensatory mitigation for any wetlands affected, either by creating new wetlands or by paying a fee to be used for that purpose. Finally, it provides penalties for violations of the law and lists exemptions to the law.
Proponents of the bill to overturn that law call it an example of regulatory overreach, an infringement on private property rights and an economic burden or hindrance to development. It is supported by the Indiana Builders Association, the Indiana Farm Bureau, the Indiana Manufacturers Association, Associated Builders & Contractors and Reliable Energy Inc.
“These costly, over burdensome regulations hamper our members’ ability to provide safe and achievable housing to Hoosiers looking to own a home and at a time when the cost of housing continues to rise due to a myriad of factors,” CEO Rick Wajda of the Indiana Builders Association wrote in an email.
Indiana Senator Karen Tallian, a Democrat from Ogden Dunes, recalls when she was a member of the Porter County Planning Commission, developers “were always trying to squeeze out like three more lots. It’s not about affordable housing. It’s about maximizing profit.”
The move to delete the law follows a narrowing of federal protection under the Clean Water Act taken by the Trump Administration, against the advice of Environmental Protection Agency scientists. Under the new rule, only wetlands adjacent to waters such as lakes, creeks and rivers are protected.
“This rule effectively guts the Clean Water Act by permanently removing protections for approximately half the nation’s streams and wetlands,” Jim Murphy, director of legal advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation, said in an interview published on April 30, 2020 in Coastal Review Online of North Carolina.
In Indiana, about 20 percent of the state’s wetlands fall under the Clean Water Act. The rest, called isolated wetlands because they stand alone, get no federal protection anymore.
Calling wetlands that lack a direct connection to another body of water “isolated” does not imply they are unconnected to anything. Their impact is far reaching, even for those that are only seasonal.
JUST WHAT THE HECK IS A WETLAND?
Defining a wetland is like trying to pin down a moving target. Is it a perennially wet spot in a farm field? How big does it need to be? How wet or dry? Definitions vary by influences as diverse as politics, Supreme Court decisions, botany and philosophy. This causes frequent tinkering with or differing interpretations of laws and regulations, leading to confusion and frustration among farmers who want to remove a wetland to increase cropland or builders hoping to enlarge a development site.
“Which wetlands are state versus federal is a manmade distinction that changes with changing leadership in the White House,” said Dr. Indra Frank, environmental health director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Fortunately, Indiana’s current wetlands law was written to deal with the repeated changes at the federal level. It simply says that any wetland not federally protected is a state wetland.”
IDEM, which oversees wetlands regulation through its Isolated Wetlands Program (IWP), defines them thus: “areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include: (1) swamps; (2) marshes; (3) bogs; and (4) similar areas.”
IDEM says defining a wetland and determining its boundaries require the services of a qualified wetlands consultant. Randy Jones of AquaTerra Consulting Inc. is one with twenty years of experience who also has worked as a wetland regulator at IDEM.
“In general, the vast majority of my clients have accepted wetland regulations … as a cost of doing business,” Jones wrote in an email. “As with any environmental regulation developed with the interest of the public at-large in mind, it does have costs for a subset of the public engaged in construction activities where wetlands may be present; typically, a financial interest is present for this subset of people. The IWP was designed to both protect Indiana’s isolated wetlands, and to provide a mechanism for builders/developers to accomplish their goals, by ensuring that practicable steps to minimize wetland impacts have been fully considered, and by compensating the public for loss of wetland functions resulting from their personal project. This is a solid public policy that balances the needs of the many with the needs of the few.”
In 2020, IDEM took 63 actions against violators of regulations pertaining to drinking water or wastewater, and one for wetlands. Inspectors saw unpermitted dredging in one wetland and the dumping of dredged material into an adjacent wetland in Dekalb County. The landowner agreed to apply for a permit, submit mitigation plans for approval, buy .69 acres worth of credit in the wetlands Mitigation Bank and pay a fine of $3,500.
Without the state law, “Approximately 80 percent of Indiana’s wetlands could be filled and/or drained without permits or mitigation,” said Sneed of IDEM.
Dr. Henry Chandler Cowles, a professor and botanist at the University of Chicago, led students on field trips to the Indiana dunes and their wetlands. Based on that fieldwork, his publication in 1899 on plant succession helped launch the science of ecology. The diversity of plant life here – from orchids to cacti – makes it a rare ecosystem.
But being rare is no protection in itself. In 1997, the rate of wetland loss yearly in Indiana was 1 to 3 percent, according to the United States Geological Survey. IDEM has no statistics on current wetlands loss. Without protection, what’s left today could amount to little more than a one- or two-year supply before they’re gone.
DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN
In 2001, a Supreme Court decision created a gap that left one-third of Indiana’s wetlands without federal protection. In response, former Indiana State Senator Beverly Gard sponsored the current law, which passed in 2003. It restored state protection to those wetlands that had lost it at the federal level.
Fast forward to 2020. At the International Builders Show in Las Vegas, two Trump Administration officials announced a new EPA rule that narrowed the definition of waters to be protected under the Clean Water Act, which they described as “federal overreach.” The new rule was based on a 2006 Supreme Court decision (Rapanos v. United States) authored by Antonin Scalia, who wrote that waters to be protected include “those relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water…described in ordinary parlance as ‘streams, oceans, rivers and lakes.’
He specifically excluded from the definition water that is present intermittently or ephemerally. Unfortunately, this describes many wetlands, which sometimes have seasonal dry periods. The state law covers those anyway.
Of the 2,700 acres in the Shirley Heinze Land Trust, about 1,000 are wetlands. “Federal jurisdiction is over some wetlands,” said Eric Bird, Heinze stewarship director. “As a land trust, we believe that all wetlands and natural areas are important and should be carefully preserved and protected.”
Environmental groups have filed suit to stop the new rule. These ranged from the Connecticut River Conservancy to the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “An EPA preliminary analysis of the proposed rule indicated it could exclude approximately 51 percent of the roughly 110 million acres of wetlands in the continental United States…an area larger than California,” the.Natural Resources Defense Council said in announcing the lawsuit.
ARE THEY SERIOUS?
Gard said in her editorial that a comprehensive study of wetlands should be conducted over the summer before “blindly moving forward with ill-conceived legislation.”
Such a study was done before the 2003 law was passed.
Jones said that by tweaking requirements in the exemptions section, both developers and the public could benefit. One change could allow developers to skip permitting small, low-quality wetlands while concentrating on saving larger, higher-quality wetlands.
“There are several other small changes that can be made to the existing rule, to allow for better and more equitable implementation, without sacrificing all wetland protections. It would be a shame to back-track on Indiana’s leadership and to destroy a program that helps all Hoosiers, particularly, if there is a quick-fix available to reasonably meet the needs of all parties,” he said.
“We are concerned,” wrote Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the Indiana Dunes National Park. Wetlands within the park are protected by the National Park Service, but that doesn’t make them invulnerable.
“We receive water from outside the park, and less protected wetlands threaten to move poorer quality water through the park and into Lake Michigan, and that should terrify everyone,” he wrote. “The East Branch of the Calumet River, Sand Creek, Salt Creek, Deep River and the Grand Calumet River are all rivers and streams already in trouble. Lessening protection is the wrong direction to go. The proposed change is a very bad idea.”
Without a permitting program, said Janette Brimmer, an attorney for EarthJustic.org, “Citizens and groups dedicated to protecting waters and wetlands in their communities won’t even get notice or know about potential damage until the wetland or water is actually being dug up or filled in or drained.”
Tallian said there’s been scuttlebutt among Republicans that the bill is meant as a shot across the bow at IDEM, and won’t pass as currently written. “But it passed (the Senate) like a fast moving locomotive,” she said.
“It’s puzzling,” said Paul Botts, president and executive director of the nonprofit Wetlands Initiative, based in Chicago. “What was broken here, what needed fixing? It was a very balanced law.”
As of March 17, it was before the House Environmental Affairs Committee. A hearing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on March 22nd.
Wrote Jones, the former IDEM regulator turned consultant, “I hope lawmakers will explore ways to re-write (it) to make the existing rule much more palatable for developers, while preserving the benefits of wetlands for all Hoosiers.”
WHERE TO SEE WETLANDS IN THE REGION
Dunes Nature Preserve, Indiana Dunes National Park, Chesterton
Springfield Fen Nature Preserve, La Porte county
Cowles Bog, Pines
Great Marsh Trail, Indiana Dunes National Park, Beverly Shores
Paul H. Douglas Trail, Miller
Tolleston Dunes, Ogden Dunes
Grand Kankakee Marsh, Hebron
Heron Rookery Trail, Michigan City
Dunes Kankakee Trail, Chesterton
Erie Lackawanna Trail, Crown Point to Hammond
Shirley Heinze Land Trust Nature Preserves:
Gordon and Faith Greiner Nature Preserve, Hobart
Ivanhoe South Nature Preserve, Gary
John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve, Portage
Keith Richard Walner Nature Preserve, Chesterton
Ambler Flatwoods Nature Preserve, Michigan City
Lydick Bog Nature Preserve, South Bend.
Groups opposing SB 389
Indiana Department of Environmental Management Indiana Department of Natural Resources Ecological Restoration Business Association Indiana Conservation Officers FOP Lodge #201 Conservation Law Center Hoosier Environmental Council Indiana Wildlife Federation White River Alliance Indiana Land Protection Alliance Little River Wetlands Project Central Indiana Land Trust Red-Tail Land Conservancy Joe River Basin Commission Save Maumee The Nature Conservancy Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter Ducks Unlimited Pheasants Forever Quail Unlimited Indiana Sportsman’s Roundtable Indiana Chapter Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Save the Dunes Friends of White River Indiana Izaak Walton League Indiana Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects Indiana Conservation Alliance Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation National Marine Manufacturers Association Indiana Forest Alliance League of Women Voters of Indiana National Parks Conservation Association Indiana State Trappers Association Indiana Bowhunters Association Indiana White-Tail Deer Herd Management Trout Unlimited International Crane Foundation Delta Waterfowl
Indiana Native Plant Society Indiana MS4 Partnership The Watershed Foundation Indiana Catholic Conference Indiana Lakes Management Society Sunrise Indianapolis Marion County Soil and Water District Lake Maxinkuckee Environmental Fund Indiana Water Monitoring Council Indiana Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management White Violet Center for Eco-justice Wabash River Enhancement Corporation Indiana Audubon Society Just Transition Northwest Indiana Wawasee Area Conservancy Foundation, Inc. Open Space and Agricultural Alliance Indiana Parks Alliance Hoosier Chapter of Soil and Water Conservation Society Oak Heritage Conservancy Shirley Heinze Land Trust Southwestern Indiana Citizens for Quality of Life Clear Lake Township Land Conservancy Woodland Savanna Land Conservancy Ouabache Land Conservancy Wabash Valley Progressives, Inc Metropolitan Planning Council Northwest Indiana Paddling Association Valley Watch Americus Area Community Coalition Izaak Walton League, Porter County Chapter Valparaiso Lakes Area Conservancy District Save Whiting and Neighbors Amos Butler Audubon Society Citizens Action Coalition The Indiana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society Ruffed Grouse Society & American Woodcock Society Jasper Rifle and Gun Club Indiana Deer Hunters Association
After several years of research and pondering, the city council of Joliet, Ill. decided Jan. 28 to buy its water from the Chicago Department of Water Management, relying on a 100-year contract to keep water rate increases in check.
The alternative, building its own pipeline to Lake Michigan, an intake and an advanced treatment plant, would have cost up to $1.4 billion. Capital costs for the Chicago plan were expected to be from $592 million to $810 million.
Council members voted seven to one in favor of the buy option. Average monthly water bills by 2040 were projected to hit $142 with the Chicago option, and $149 with the build-a-pipeline option.
Eventually, costs for the build option were expected to drop below the Chicago deal as capital improvements were paid for, but that apparently didn’t make the initial billion-dollar price any easier to swallow. City officials have pledged to come up with programs to help low-income residents pay their higher water bills.
Failing aquifers that supply the city’s wells forced the city to decide one way or the other. By 2030, some of the city’s wells are expected to be dry.
The city of Joliet, Ill. can no longer rely on depleted aquifers to supply enough water to its failing wells. It can spend $900,000,000 to $1.1 billion building its own pipeline to Lake Michigan at a site in Hammond, Ind., or it can buy water from a lakeshore city such as Chicago. Mayors of both cities traveled to Joliet to make personal pitches to the city council for a contract.
With its own pipeline, rates for residents are expected to go up from an average of $30.75 a month to almost $100 a month. However, the city’s analysis predicts this would be less expensive in the long run than buying water. Owning a pipeline to the lake would let Joliet set its own rates, and pump surplus water to sell.
As a customer, it would have some bargaining power, but would it have enough to convince residents after rate increases imposed by another city that they’re getting the best deal?
Design, routing, permitting and construction must begin quickly to meet a deadline of 2030, when at least four wells will be close to failing. The city council aims to make a decision in January 2021.
By 2030, the aquifers wateringits wells won’t be reliable. The gold-standard replacement would cost a billion dollars.
By Linda Gibson
From a pool of 14 options that included four rivers, Joliet, Ill. has narrowed its decision about a new water source to a few choices involving Lake Michigan.
As one of the five Great Lakes, it’s part of the largest surface freshwater source in the nation. Midwesterners consider it the gold standard of water, and they want it.
They don’t want river water, to judge by public comments submitted to the city.
“DON’T USE RIVER WATER!!!”
“No matter how much it costs, get Lake Michigan water.”
From the beginning, the city council decided to make its choice based on water quality, not cost. If what comes out of the tap isn’t clean, safe, odor free, pleasant tasting and abundant, no bargain would make up for it.
The cost of building and operating its own pipeline to Lake Michigan could triple monthly water bills, but it would be less expensive in the long run than buying water, according to the city’s analysis. Buying water costs less money up front for infrastructure, but that means the supplier sets the rates.
Council members must choose between paying a lot of money now or even more later. The only certainty is that one or the other is unavoidable. “It’s something we’re forced to do,” said Allison Swisher, Joliet’s director of public utilities.
The Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) gave Joliet the bad news about their wells in 2018. Since then, staffers and consultants for the city have produced and maintain a highly detailed website about the problem (rethinkwaterJoliet.org), gathered for countless hours at meetings with lawyers and engineers and presented the council with a two-phase study of alternative water sources that runs more than 950 pages.
The study warns that one of Joliet’s 26 wells could begin sucking air as soon as 2025. By 2030, three of Joliet’s wells could be “at risk,” the study predicts; by 2040, 10 wells. The city aims to have a new system in place by 2030.
The council hopes to decide by the end of the year which option to choose. The two main contenders are:
-Buying water from Chicago. At $550 million to $650 million (depending on the amount bought per day), this is a less costly way, at first, for the city to get Lake Michigan water than building its own pipeline to the lake. However, water rates for Chicago residents have tripled in the last decade, according to a WBEZ report from Feb. 14, 2019. It said the water department had sent more than 150,000 shut-off notices, with 40 percent going to the five poorest neighborhoods in the city, and had levied $7 million in fines and fees since 2007. (The department was contacted to verify these figures, but nobody responded.)
-Jumping into the deep end of the water business. Build a pipeline to Lake Michigan, an intake in the lake, a treatment plant and pumping stations. Perhaps form a regional water commission with other towns, whose aquifer-dependent wells also are in trouble. Joliet, as the big fish in a vote-by-proportional-share commission arrangement, would have a lot of say in decisions about rates. The regional scenario would require 47 miles of 66-inch pipe instead of 54-inch pipe (for Joliet only), boosting construction costs from $900 million to serve just Joliet to $1.1 billion for a regional system.
It’s a lot to swallow.
Joliet’s in-depth look at the situation, the Alternative Water Source Study, notes that the level of water in Will County aquifers has sunk in some cases to 800 feet below the ground, beyond the practical reach of pumps.
The deep aquifer supplying 21 of Joliet’s 26 wells, and others in Will County, can sustain withdrawals of 2.5 million gallons a day, according to the ISWS. But Joliet and other communities in Will County have been drawing 30.5 million gallons a day.
Meanwhile, the city’s population is expected to grow from 148,000 in 2017 to just short of 207,000 by 2050, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). They’d need 27 million gallons a day then, unless vigorous conservation practices are used.
Even in the most optimistic scenario – the city drills new wells, practices conservation and maximizes production from old wells – some wells would begin to fail in 2035, the study concluded. At best, they could be used as a back-up.
Typically, one or even two wells are offline for maintenance or repair. Joliet no longer can afford that. “The city should be prepared to severely limit water use throughout the community when more than one well is out of service during peak water use,” warns the study.
When first dug in the mid-1800s, these wells were artesian. Water flowed to the surface without pumping because the aquifer had enough pressure in it. But withdrawals immediately exceeded the sustainable level, and have every year. As the population grew, water levels dropped and pressure decreased. Pumps were put in. If more water was needed, more wells were dug.
Since that won’t work anymore for the long run, conservation is a must. It’s also legally required by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), which must issue a permit before an Illinois city can take Lake Michigan water.
Besides conservation, the other means of slowing or reducing water consumption is to slow or reduce population gains. Based on past trends, this is unlikely. Joliet’s population went up by 40 percent from 2000 to 2010.
“They put themselves themselves in this situation by not paying attention to growth and conservation in the first place,” said Todd Brennan, senior policy manager at the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
In spite of the water crunch, business as usual continues. The city council in April voted 6-3 to approve annexing almost 1300 unincorporated acres for NorthPoint Development’s proposed Compass Business Park. In August, the council committed to spend $12.4 million to help build a highway interchange for the developer of Rock Run Crossings, a 265-acre mixed-use project of stores, restaurants and apartments. A Love’s truck stop with three restaurants is to be built near the second Amazon facility near Joliet. Ikea, Mars, Home Depot and Whirlpool also have built distribution centers or warehouses near the city.
NorthPoint’s business park project has attracted fierce opposition (such as the website no2northpoint.com), some of it based on worry over its impact on the aquifers, plus soil erosion, flooding and urban sprawl.
Go regional or go it alone?
Despite the enormous cost of construction for a regional system, the study predicts lower water bills for Joliet residents in that situation.
If it built a pipeline that can deliver 30 million gallons a day in 2050 just for Joliet, that would cost residents $67.66 a month. If it builds a regional pipeline that can deliver 60 million gallons a day, half of which could be sold, the figure would drop to $55.67. These amounts are in addition to current average water bills of $31 a month.
The city already has approved annual 10.5 percent rate increases for 2019, 2020 and 2021. More rate increases will be evaluated after that, says the study.
What about the Great Lakes Compact?
Water in the Great Lakes comprises 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. A jealously guarded resource, they supply drinking water to 10 million people and underlie a regional gross domestic product worth $5 trillion, one of the largest in the world.
Since 2008, when the Great Lakes Compact was enacted to control access to the water, eight states have held veto power to ban withdrawals except under limited circumstances.
Cities that are outside the lakes’ basins aren’t entitled to a drop. Lake Michigan’s basin, about 45,000 square miles, covers parts of Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. (Lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario water parts of Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Ontario and Quebec.)
Waukesha, Wis. remains the first and only city outside the basin to get permission to pump Lake Michigan water. It had to contend with strongly opposed environmental groups to do it, lengthening the time to approval to six years. The city is in a county that is partially inside the lake’s basin. Combined with its desperate need for a new water source and its agreement to strict conditions, that was enough for the compact to stretch itself into approving Waukesha’s appeal.
But Illinois cities have a unique advantage. They don’t need permission from the Compact to get Lake Michigan water, just approval from IDNR.
Illinois won this exception as a result of a Supreme Court case against Chicago. Other states sued Illinois after the city reversed the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan to stop sewage from flowing into it. Wisconsin, the lead plaintiff, complained that this lowered lake levels, interfering with shipping.
Eventually, the court ruled that the diversion had been needed, but set a limit of 3200 cubic feet per second. Thus, Illinois gained a loophole the size of two billion gallons a day.
Lake Michigan can handle it
Public water systems in Illinois used about 800 million gallons of Lake Michigan water a day in 2017, according to IDNR. By 2050, CMAP estimates, they’ll withdraw 1223 million gallons a day.
Since the lake is estimated to contain one quadrillion gallons – which is 1000 trillions – this is a mere drop in a seemingly limitless bucket. “Experts say two billions gallons don’t affect Lake Michigan at all,” said Brennan of the Alliance.
Even with Joliet added, daily use of Lake Michigan water in Illinois is expected to be well below two billion gallons a day.
There is another limit. IDNR requires its permitees to boost efficiency and reduce water loss within their systems to no more than 10 percent. Joliet’s annual water losses in 2016 and 2017 amounted to 24 percent and 28 percent of the water supplied in those years; the average nationally is 15 percent. The city plans to replace its water mains, and has started yearly water-loss audits through a leak detection program.
A water conservation subcommittee of the city’s Environmental Commission has produced a plumbing handbook for residents, offers subsidized rain barrels, rebates for low-flow toilets and is trying to convince restaurants to quit automatically serving its customers water.
Shipwrecks, dragonflies and dangerous dirt
The first ceremonial shovelful of dirt for a pipeline wouldn’t be dug until 2025. Before then:
Sites must be purchased and planning finished for an intake in Lake Michigan, pumping stations and an advanced-treatment plant, which will be designed to handle contaminants (like pharmaceuticals and microplastics) which are “of concern” but not yet regulated by the federal government; a pipeline route to the lake must be chosen, snaking 40-some miles through various rights-of-way and utility or forest preserve corridors to avoid wetlands and contaminated soil; permits must be obtained from IDNR, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and for every railroad and highway crossing, as well as cities along the route; applications for funding made to federal and state grant and loan programs; ordinances ranging from lawn watering to meters updated for conservation and efficiency; municipal bonds prepared for sale; maybe a regional water commission set up; state legislation passed to authorize the water commission; and a rate structure decided on.
An environmental impact statement would alert construction crews to any endangered species along the way of the transmission main. The presence of the Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly already prohibits digging more wells into one kind of aquifer or tampering with wetlands where the bug lives.
A route also must be chosen for the intake, a pipeline that could extend 8000 feet into Lake Michigan. A map of southwestern Lake Michigan is being prepared showing water depth, waves and currents, environmental conditions, navigation lanes and shipwrecks. Building under heavily used shipping lanes and shipwrecks on the lake floor will be avoided.
Up in Waukesha, construction supervisors will be watching for Indian burial grounds that are said to be close to a part of the project. Waukesha’s project is much smaller than Joliet’s – $286 million, 8.2 million gallons a day – but the headaches are similar.
Waukesha ran into opposition from rural residents who didn’t like the idea of a reservoir and pumping station built in their bucolic neighborhood. After a lawsuit and a settlement, the city agreed to relocate the facilities.
“No matter how much outreach you do, some people haven’t paid attention and will complain to elected officials,” said Daniel Duchniak, general manager since 2003 of the Waukesha Water Utility. “I can’t emphasize enough communicating with the people directly affected.”
He especially advised keeping officials from the local level, the state Capitol and the federal level informed about the project.
“You’re not going to make everyone happy and if you try, you’ll never finish,” he said. On the other hand, he warned, “Don’t burn any bridges.”
One of the greatest benefits of these efforts for Waukasha, he said, is that it has opened doors to regional cooperation. Its project should be done in 2023.
The biggest decision they’ll make
Eight city council members – a driver for the park district, the executive director of a community center, the owner of two funeral homes, a registered nurse, a bookkeeper and three insurance brokers – along with the mayor will make the big decision.
They have experience dealing with big numbers. This year, they passed a 2020 budget of $329 million in expenditures, with a surplus of $41.7 million.
The impact of this decision, however, will last far longer than one budget year.
“This is by far the biggest project any of us will engage in as elected officials,” said Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk. He’s not worried. He said the research has been thorough, and he’s confident that whatever the council chooses will benefit the city for decades to come.
Joliet residents still have opportunities to weigh in on which option the council should. There will be pre-council meetings at 5:30 p.m. on Oct.5, Oct, 19, Nov. 2, Nov. 16, Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, and council meetings at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 6, Oct. 20, Nov. 2, Nov. 17, Dec. 1 and Dec. 15. All are open to the public, and take place in the council chambers of the municipal building at 150 W. Jefferson Street.
Phone numbers and email addresses for the mayor and the councilmembers are on the city website at joliet.gov. People also can send comments to the website rethinkwaterjoliet.org.
By the numbers
Estimated addition to the $31 average monthly water bill in Joliet: $51 to $68
Average water use per person per day in Joliet: 130 gallons, 19.3 million total
Amount of water in Joliet storage facilities: 11.3 million gallons
Estimated cost of easements per acre, rural and suburban, respectively: $45,000 to $60,000
Estimated cost of new water treatment plant: $220 million
Estimated yearly cost of treating water: $181 million
Estimated 50-year cost of buying 30 million gallons a day from Chicago: $4.6 billion
Estimated 50-year cost of pumping 30 million gallons a day through Joliet’s own pipeline to the lake: $3.9 billion