JOLIET – In 15 or 20 years the Joliet wells could start to go dry, or so it’s predicted.
This is not the first time groundwater experts have predicted a potential groundwater shortage for the city. But it’s hard for a public official to ignore forecasts that the city’s source of water could dry up.
“If the scientists are right, and we’re looking at 20 years of water left, it’s not a lot of time to do what we need to do here,” Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said.
O’Dekirk earlier this month appointed seven people to a commission to study the city’s options, which could include drawing water from the Kankakee River or switching to Lake Michigan water.
In a way, it’s back to the future.
Joliet for decades has been weighing its options as the future of available of water underground has clashed with predicted shortages tied to growth spurts above ground.
“The last time we looked at going to Kankakee River was in 2003,” utilities director James Eggen said.
The city then, too, was looking at forecasts from the Illinois State Water Survey, a leading research institute on water issues that provided a fairly flexible forecast for groundwater availability.
“At that time, the best answer we could get from the Illinois State Water Survey was 20 to 100 years,” Eggen said. “They’ve continued to do more study on the situation. They keep moving the projection up.”
The city had by 2007 built 11 groundwater treatment plants expected to serve Joliet for 20 years.
The early 2000s was not the first time Joliet explored alternate sources of water because of forecasts that groundwater would dry up.
In 1971, Joliet and five other towns – Frankfort, Lockport, New Lenox, Rockdale and Romeoville – formed a Public Water Commission to look for water options.
“There was aquifer depletion at that time,” Eggen said. “That was primarily driven by DuPage County. They were on groundwater at the time.”
DuPage County was growing fast, while drawing on the same deep sandstone aquifer – the Cambrian-Ordovician Aquifer – that runs under Joliet and much of northeastern Illinois. When DuPage County switched to Lake Michigan water, the aquifer recharged.
But future building booms spread farther away from Chicago. Joliet and many Will County towns were among the fastest growing in the country in the pre-recession growth years of the 2000s.
The Public Water Commission, which was dormant for years, was revived in 2015.
Now, water experts say the Cambrian-Ordovician Aquifer that serves Joliet could be sustained if the city stopped using it – at least as a primary source of water.
“We’ve been using water from this source since 1863,” said George Roadcap, a hydrologist with the Illinois State Water Survey. That was the year the first well in Chicago was dug into the aquifer.
“The water shot up 80 feet in the air,” Roadcap said. “It used to be under a lot of pressure, but that pressure has been bled off over time.”
Chicago eventually got off the aquifer and used Lake Michigan water. Aurora and Elgin in recent years switched to the Fox River as their primary water source, although they continue to maintain deep water wells as a secondary source.
Roadcap envisions Joliet eventually doing the same, using the aquifer as a secondary source of water, if the city switches to the Kankakee River or Lake Michigan as the primary source.
“The aquifer will continue to serve a very valuable purpose in the future as a backup source,” he said.
While the Cambrian-Ordovician Aquifer runs under much of northeastern Illinois, not every town with wells uses it.
Some of the same towns in the Public Water Commission use a shallow aquifer, which is not accessible in Joliet. They say their water is holding up fine.
“We’ve not seen any problems, so we believe we’re good,” said Frankfort Village Administrator Jerald Ducay.
The aquifer actually has improved with neighboring municipalities switching to Lake Michigan water, he said. But Ducay said Frankfort remains interested in exploring water options.
There’s an uncertainty about water, said Ben Benson, village administrator in Lockport, which also uses a shallow aquifer water supply.
There is no analysis on the future of the aquifer Lockport uses, although it appears reliable for the foreseeable future. Just in case, however, Benson said he developed an emergency plan to switch to Joliet water should Lockport wells run dry.
“Nobody really knows,” Benson said. “It could be 20 years. It could be 100 years. It could be never. It could be tomorrow. But when you’re responsible for potable water for the public, you have to hedge your bets.”