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Thoughts From Engineers: When Cities in the Midwest Run Dry

Chris Maeder on May 27, 2022 - in Articles, Column

The states surrounding the Great Lakes have always been a bit smug about the bounty of freshwater on their doorstep. These states have been equally vigilant about keeping this resource close and have drafted laws to protect this enormous concentration of freshwater from being siphoned off or sold to thirsty neighbors. Many cities in Wisconsin and Illinois fueled their growth with the region’s seemingly limitless supply of groundwater. At the turn of the last century (1900s), after many of these areas were first settled by Europeans, there was more than enough water in this land of plenty—even without tapping the Great Lakes themselves—and the cities grew accordingly.

No city ever anticipates running out of water. A major water-supply overhaul is underway as two major cities—Waukesha, Wis., located on the western outskirts of Milwaukee in a county that straddles the Great Lakes watershed, and Joliet, Ill., in a county entirely outside the same watershed—are poised to build (or are already building) drinking-water infrastructure to access Lake Michigan. Unchecked consumption and demand, aquifers that were slow to recharge, and a host of other issues triggered a hunt for alternative sources of drinking water some time ago. Now a shift to an entirely new source of water is imminent. These cases could mark the beginning of a new era for the Great Lakes Watershed.

The Suburbs of Milwaukee Send Out a Straw

Waukesha was once a bustling resort town that capitalized on its many artesian springs to entice tourists from across the country. Some 100 years later, depleted aquifers, a layer of impervious clay that prevented groundwater recharge and high levels of radium at the deepest depths mandated a search for an alternative water source. Waukesha and a few neighboring communities received permission in 2016 to withdraw 8.2 million gallons per day of Lake Michigan water and move it to the suburbs via Milwaukee’s existing water intake infrastructure and 12.3 miles of newly constructed pipeline.

According to the terms of the Great Lakes Compact (GLC), an agreement signed in 2008 by the eight U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes and two Canadian provinces, water from the Great Lakes must stay in the basin and can only be diverted when specific conditions are met. Although Waukesha is located outside the Great Lakes watershed, the boundaries of the county in which the city is located straddle the watershed. The city’s location—and the fact that Waukesha agreed to build the pipeline necessary to move the same volume of water back into Lake Michigan—is why the project was allowed to move forward.

A Thirsty Commercial Hub

Joliet is located across the state border in Illinois, just southwest of Chicago, and some 130 miles south of Waukesha. It has been called the “largest inland port” in the United States because some of the largest commercial distributors in the U.S. are located there (e.g., Amazon, Home Depot and countless others), collectively employing some 140,000 employees. The water needs of these corporations are high, but higher still are the needs of the growing residential areas. Joliet recently surpassed Rockford, Ill., in population growth and now is considered the third-largest city in Illinois.

A comprehensive analysis produced by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2015 established conclusively that the deep sandstone aquifer that provided water to the city’s 21 wells would be depleted by the year 2030. Following analysis, the state of Illinois issued a permit in September 2021 to allow the City of Joliet to withdraw water from Lake Michigan via Chicago’s existing intake infrastructure. Joliet received a 2022 grant of $323 million in funding from the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to build and maintain the pipeline necessary to move the water to Joliet. Because several other communities near the Lake Michigan shoreline foresee similar groundwater shortages by 2050, a regional water commission to distribute costs among multiple parties may be in the works.

Testing the GLC

Joliet is located outside the Great Lakes watershed, which prevents it from withdrawing water under the strict terms of the GLC. This project is still moving forward due to a 1965 Supreme Court of United States (SCOTUS) decision that carved out an exception in terms of Lake Michigan water diversions for the state of Illinois. Simply stated, the Illinois exception relates to an engineering feat completed in 1900 to reverse the flow of the Calumet River away from Lake Michigan to dispose of the city’s (then) substantial volume of raw sewage.

Municipalities in Illinois can continue to benefit from this historic diversion—and many are lining up—so long as Illinois does not exceed the cap of 3,200 cubic feet per second per day identified by SCOTUS. At this point, there’s no requirement to return water to the basin, but other conditions apply, and water-conservation measures are mandatory. Advocates for the GLC maintain that Joliet’s case triggers a “slippery slope” of sorts, one that will undermine long-term GLC goals. Additional demands for water diversions are likely imminent and foreseeable—regardless of existing federal limits and international agreements—and the most deafening clamor will come from the Great Lakes states themselves.

Lessons from the Arid West

A water shortage in a historically water-rich region is a troubling thing. As the West has shown, a well may dry up, but we can build pipelines—as long as necessary—until we find the next watering hole. This has been our practice for years. Although Western states have long managed an even drier reality, recent water-supply developments in the Midwest should trigger some level of community-wide “self-assessment,” and, to some degree, it has. Water conservation measures are widespread, and water reuse is more accepted.

But water’s true value still isn’t widely recognized. Our cities have always managed to get it—one way or the other—and, as a civilization, we don’t like to get in the way of economic growth or let any type of resource limits—water or otherwise—dictate the terms of how we live. This mindset is unlikely to change in the decades ahead. May our skill, ingenuity and infrastructure rise to the occasion.

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About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: [email protected].

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