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Buy Water or Build a Pipeline? Joliet Decides

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.

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The Billion-Dollar Question: What Should Joliet Do?

By Linda Gibson

Dollar symbols flowing from an open faucet. Digital illustration.

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.

What would you decide?