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.


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?


By 2030, the aquifers watering its 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.


“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.

Deep trouble

This model was constructed to show the change of groundwater levels in the Joliet, Illinois, area. Tops of rods represent ground level, the bottom of the black portion the former water level, and bottom of the light gray portion the present water level. From the Illinois State Water Survey

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.

Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly

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

Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk

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