Industrial Use of Water:
The Assumption of Abundance
Part 4 of "Water Resources in Illinois"
Illinois Issues introduction: To some extent, Illinois's economy has always been dependent on water—whether for transportation, for agriculture, for electric generation or for steel production. Yet. few people are paying attention to how and how much Illinois water is being used. The following article explores these questions in relation to Illinois's major industrial users of water.
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It is a cliche that without water man cannot survive. Less appreciated is the fact that what is true of humans is true of human works as well; without water an economy cannot survive either.
What might be called the industrial use of water comprises by far the largest category of water use, in Illinois as elsewhere. "Industrial" in this sense means that wide variety of uses outside drinking water and sanitation. But what exactly happens when we "use" water?
Hydrologists draw distinctions between water withdrawals—which are a form of borrowing water for specific uses—and water consumption. For example, water taken from wells or surface reservoirs for domestic use, or to be converted into steam to run electric generators, or to wash bedpans in hospitals is not materially altered by its use. It can be made hotter or dirtier by its use, but it is returned, either to its source or to another equally accessible source, in nearly the same state and quantity in which it was originally borrowed, to be borrowed again. Such borrowings from the water system are known to hydrologists as water withdrawals.
Then there are the so-called in-stream uses of water. These do not require the withdrawal of water from its source at all. Applicable to rivers, streams, and lakes, in-stream uses include commercial navigation, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, and (according to some accountings) hydroelectric generation.
Finally there is the consumptive use of water. This is water which is altered by its use by humans and thus rendered unreturnable to its source. Water which is consumed may be said to be spent rather than borrowed. Coal gasification, during which water molecules are broken down chemically to become a constituent of synthetic gas, is one consumptive use. Irrigation is another, since much of the water applied to a corn field does not return to groundwater or to nearby streams but escapes as vapor through evaporation from the soil surface or through transpiration by the leaves of the corn plants or through export of the crops thus produced.
An accounting of how Illinois spends its water riches contains some surprises. According to the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) water withdrawals in the state in 1980 from all sources totaled 42,339 million gallons per day (mgd). This figure was about 47 percent higher in 1980 than it was in 1975. Although certain categories of withdrawals increased markedly during this period (rural water use for households, livestock watering, and irrigation went up by 177 percent for example) the bulk of the increase came from the industrial sector, chiefly electric generating plants.
In fact, power plants accounted for nearly 94 percent of the total water withdrawals in Illinois in 1980. (Of this amount 25,570 mgd, or 60 percent, was diverted through hydroelectric plants. The rest, some 14,060 mgd, was used in thermoelectric plants, with nearly all of that coming from reservoirs built next to power plants for that purpose.) It was Illinois's thirst for electricity, not its thirst for water, which increased withdrawals in the 1970s; daily withdrawals by such self-supplied industries as the power industry (already the largest user of water) rose by 60 percent between 1970 and 1980.
If one disregards the self-supplied industrial water user, the average total daily withdrawal statewide is a very much smaller 2,710 mgd. Public water systems accounted for 1,779 mgd of this total, while rural domestic use (chiefly supplied by wells) came to another 117 mgd.
This left 814 mgd for livestock watering, irrigation, wildlife management (flooding of waterfowl feeding acres by state and federal game officials in 1980 took nearly 27 mgd) and manufacturing. The last category included coal mining (where much water is used to wash coal), oil drilling (where water is injected down into wells to force oil up), food processing, and the like.
Water and agriculture
The biggest natural exchanges of water do not appear in the official water accounts, however. Of the precipitation which falls on a typical Illinois cornfield, for example, roughly 70 percent returns directly to the atmosphere, unmeasured and unmetered. Most of this water (50 percent) escapes through evaporation from surface soils, with the rest returning as a result of transpiration by plant leaves. It has been estimated that losses to the atmosphere statewide from evapotranspiration from farm fields, golf courses, and suburban backyards amount to 76 billion gallons a day. This is the equivalent of 26 inches of rain a year.
In a state in which most of the land is devoted to farm fields, these transactions are vitally important to the water economy. Since water is a key ingredient in crop yields, making better use of water has long been a goal of agronomists. Researchers have tried everything from coating leaves with moisture-holding chemicals to breeding plants with more water-retentive leaf shapes. Covering fields with plastic film to cut evaporative losses has boosted yields in some experiments by anywhere from 30 to 130 percent. Plastic is uneconomical in large scale applications, of course, but tillage methods which leave soil-sheltering plant residues on the surface accomplish some of the same effects.
Such measures are important because, although Illinois's average annual precipitation is more than sufficient to grow fine crops of corn and soybeans, a shortage of water at certain critical stages of plant growth (in July and August for these particular crops) can cut yields dramatically.
Because of this, more and more Illinois farmers are providing for themselves, through irrigation, what nature sometimes fails to provide. In Illinois, irrigation has been only a minor aspect of farm operations for decades. As recently as 1966, only 28,000 acres of cropland were being irrigated. Yields were high without it, and so was the cost of installing and running irrigation pumps, wells, and pipes.
A dramatic upswing in grain prices in 1973 following the Russian grain sale led to an equally dramatic upswing in irrigation in Illinois, as the higher returns per bushel suddenly made the investment worthwhile. By 1981, the estimated acreage under irrigation in Illinois had risen to 150,000.
Even 150,000 acres is only a tiny fraction of Illinois's farmland, however. Ideally, irrigable land needs to be of gentle slope and near large supplies of cheap water. Irrigation is largely unnecessary in the best black dirt regions of the state, where soils hold moisture well against late season droughts. On porous, sandy soils such as commonly found along Illinois's major rivers, irrigation is considered essential. Mason County has many such soils. It also has a sizable aquifer with which to water them, with the result that it leads the state in irrigated acreage (40,000).
In 1980, withdrawals for irrigation came to only 97 mgd, or about 0.2 percent of the state's total. Given this fact, fears that irrigation might pose a threat to Illinois's water supplies would seem exaggerated. Yet no less an authority than Stanley Changnon, the head of the ISWS, has stated that continued increases in irrigation could, over the next 20 to 40 years, "put a strain on water resources such that this state has never seen before." (The impact of irrigation on groundwater levels is currently under extensive study by the ISWS.)
A hint of what could happen in Illinois may be seen farther west. A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that groundwater levels are dropping by six inches to six feet a year beneath half the nation's irrigated acreage. The study predicts that within 20 years farmers of 15 million acres in 11 plains and southwestern states may have to shift to less water-intensive crops.
Those who promote irrigation in the state—including University of Illinois agronomist M. D. Thorne—note in rebuttal that a typical golf course requires as much irrigation water as a quarter-section (160 acres) of corn. The broader point is that there are many urban water uses which are more extravagant and less productive than irrigation. However, irrigating just ten percent of the state's 1980 corn acreage would have required enough water to sustain 7,563 golf courses. And much of the water applied to crops is not merely borrowed but is lost through evapotranspiration—which is why agriculture, though not the biggest withdrawer of water nationwide, is the country's biggest consumer of water.
Even irrigation's critics acknowledge that the practice would have to expand enormously in Illinois to pose a genuine threat to water supplies, and at the moment the economics of irrigation do not add up for most Illinois farmers. The Illinois Cooperative Extension Service calculates that the total cost of installing and operating one of the common forms of irrigation systems in 1982 is about $162 per acre. With the price of corn at $2.50 per bushel—which is close to what it was fetching at country elevators in the summer of 1982—a farmer would need to boost his yield by 64 bushels per acre to recoup his investment. That needed increase alone is roughly half the average total yield in a good corn year.
It is interesting to note that the Coop Extension Service cost estimates do not include any cost for the water beyond the cost of well construction and pumpage. In the West, cheap water is a prime reason for the expansion of irrigation in what used to be deserts—irrigation which has so decimated aquifers that cracks are beginning to appear above them on the surface. Subsidized water from federally funded water projects has made it possible, and profitable, to turn 12 million desert acres into a Garden of Eden. Such irrigated land comprises only one percent of the farmland in the U.S. but it accounts for ten percent of the dollar value of all the nation's crops.
A policy which encourages the production of water-hungry vegetables in a desert would seem ecologically insane. Interior Secretary James Watt has proposed letting the price of water rise to meet market level, which is ten times higher than the current subsidized price. If adopted, this reform is expected to either stem the spread of irrigation or lead to new efficiencies in water use.
Most of the potential irrigation water in Illinois would come from underground sources which at the moment are free to anyone who can tap them. Whether Illinois agriculture will someday take massive advantage of these riches is impossible to say. Some researchers see weather modification—rainmaking—as a cheaper alternative to irrigation. Others see rescue from what climatologists suspect may be a period of increasing drought in improved plant types or water-retentive chemical treatments. Whatever happens, it seems inevitable that Illinois's largest industry will have to begin to pay much more careful attention to how and how much it uses water.
Water isn't needed only to grow corn and soybeans in Illinois. It is vital to moving them to market as well. The first "roads" by which Indians and later European explorers crisscrossed Illinois were made of water. Illinois's river system has been a key element to its economic success ever since, connecting its fertile fields to markets both on the East Coast and in Europe (via the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence) and in South America and Asia (via the Gulf of Mexico).
Commercial navigation thus must be counted among the more important in-stream uses of water in Illinois. The state's rivers are often compared to interstate highways, and the resemblance is more than metaphorical. Both are essentially man-made structures, designed to carry bulk cargoes. Maintaining channels of a minimum depth requires dams to control seasonal fluctuations in water levels by backing up water into pools and locks which enable barge tows to negotiate the dams. This is a tricky business. River traffic is usually halted somewhere in Illinois because water is too high or too low or frozen stiff. (In one memorable incident on the Illinois during the floods in the spring of 1982, a barge missed a turn and stranded itself atop a highway bridge.)
Changing a river whose flow is erratic into a waterway whose flow is steady is neither easy nor cheap. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been responsible for navigation improvements on the nation's inland waterways for a century and a half. The Corps began removing sand bars and snags from the upper Mississippi River along Illinois as early as the 1820s. The channel was progressively cleared, straightened and deepened—to four and a half feet in 1878, six feet in 1907, and nine feet in 1930. Maintaining the current nine-foot channel requires an elaborate system of 28 locks and dams between Minneapolis and Alton.
The navigational possibilities of the Illinois River were recognized by French explorers as early as the 1600s. The first dam and lock on the Illinois (at Henry, to backup water to a navigable depth as far as LaSalle) was built in 1871. Barge traffic between Lake Michigan and the Illinois commenced in 1848 via the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The I&M was partially replaced in 1900 by the new, bigger Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which in turn was augmented in the 1920s by improvements to the channel of the Des Plaines River and the upper reaches of the Illinois.
In 1927 Congress authorized the creation of a nine-foot channel on the Illinois between Lake Michigan and its confluence with the Mississippi, 327 miles away. The "canalization" of the Illinois by the Corps was completed in 1933. Today the river's depth is maintained by a system of seven locks and six dams. In 1978 a total of 86 million tons of cargo moved through those locks, making it one of the nation's busiest waterways. And the access the Illinois provides to the nation's seaports is responsible for the fact that Illinois leads all farm states in the value ($3.6 billion in 1980) of farm products exported.
There are similar, if less extensive, navigation improvements on all major Illinois streams, including the Wabash, the Ohio, and the Kaskaskia. But while rivers are very good for barge traffic, barge traffic isn't always very good for rivers. Sediment gets trapped behind navigation dams, and it must be dredged and dumped elsewhere. Propellers of tug boats churn up sediments and on heavily traveled sections of a river keep light-blocking sediments suspended in the water constantly. Waves from the passage of the big barges chew away at banks.
The Illinois River dilemma
If rivers served only as conduits for commerce, these impacts would not be especially worrisome. Unfortunately, rivers serve many other purposes. Like lakes and ponds, rivers are a habitat for fish and game (and the sportsmen who hunt them) and offer recreation to the boater. Like aquifers they supply public water systems. Unlike either lakes or aquifers, however, rivers also serve as barge highways, and flood drains. However, rivers are also natural sewage disposal systems. Sewage added to a stream is diluted and, acted upon by bacteria present in the water, eventually decomposed into harmless constituents. Sewage disposal was one of the first, and remains one of the chief, in-stream uses of water in Illinois.
Reconciling these often contradictory demands has never been easy. No stream better illustrates this dilemma than the Illinois. As noted, the Illinois is a major cargo carrier. The Illinois also used to be the source of a major inland fishery at the turn of the century. The Illinois also has been used as a sewage dump by the city of Chicago since 1900 when the flow of the Chicago River was reversed so that it drained waste away from Lake Michigan and into the Illinois. The result was the near-death of both the river and commercial fishing in it.
Problems arise when people overload the natural cleansing capacity of a stream. Chicago for years overloaded the Illinois, in effect using the lake to flush the city's toilets. The city treats its sewage today, of course, rather than merely flushing it away. But dilution of Illinois River water remains one of the factors controlling the diversion of Lake Michigan water into the system. (According to the current agreement, between ten and 13 percent of the 3,200 cubic feet per second allowable diversion is earmarked for dilution.) As a result fish can again swim in the Illinois, even if people still cannot.
In fact, even after three-quarters of a century the conviction remains among many Downstaters that Chicago regards the Illinois as little more than a giant sink drain. In 1976, Congress approved legislation which authorized a five-year demonstration project which would dramatically increase the amount of water flowing into the Illinois from the lake. Lake Michigan has been suffering from shoreline erosion caused by too-high water levels. The shoreline has moved inland 1,200 feet in places in the last 100 years. A study by the Illinois Department of Transportation in 1981 concluded that losses to property and land at Illinois Beach State Park alone run to more than $2 million a year.
To remedy lake erosion (and to increase sewage dilution), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed that diversion from the lake be trebled. Preliminary studies showed that while diversion might lower lake levels by perhaps three inches, the Illinois might rise by as much as a foot in the process. The prospect of increased flooding, pumping costs, sedimentation, and erosion downstream did not enchant farmers. They complained in hearings that they would have to pay to protect the lakefront properties of wealthy North Shore suburbanites, and that opposition led to the project's shelving in 1979.
There is a certain irony in farm opposition to the Illinois Lake Michigan diversion scheme. Heedless farming practices in the Illinois watershed have added silt transport to the list of the Illinois's in-stream uses and meant that silt has replaced sewage as the river's heaviest burden. Predictably, using the river as a giant sediment catch basin interferes with its other roles. Filling in of the main channel requires constant dredging to keep barges afloat, and siltation of backwater lakes complicates the lives of fish and waterfowl which once made the lower Illinois a haven for sportsmen.
Boaters are suffering too. In the 1940s the Corps of Engineers built a flood diversion channel where the Sangamon River enters the Illinois. Thus rerouted, the Sangamon dumped its loads of sediment into Muscooten Bay rather than the Illinois, with the result that a large marina on the bay at Beardstown is so badly silted up that pleasure boats no longer stop there.
All these points merely confirm what should be obvious, namely that in a complex ecosystem it is impossible to make changes in one part of the system without causing changes—often unwanted, usually unexpected—in other parts.
Energy demands on water
Instead of reducing the demands we make of our water systems, Illinoisans are increasing them. As noted, the energy industry already is far and away the biggest water user in Illinois. The coal conversion industry in Illinois has been slow-a-borning, but when it arrives it promises to be a thirsty child. In 1975 the state's water and geological surveys collaborated on a study ("Coal and Water Resources for Coal Conversion in Illinois") which noted that a large coal conversion plant would use as much water as a largish city (up to 72 million gallons per day, assuming no special conservation measures were taken). That amount would probably be much lower in plants which do not use "once through" cooling systems, perhaps as low as 14 mgd. But in any event large amounts of water (anywhere from ten to 50 percent of the total) could actually be consumed, either to supply hydrogen atoms for the process or through evaporation.
Even so, the surveys concluded that at minimum flow the Illinois reaches of the Mississippi River could sustain "numerous" such plants. There are 17 other sites in the state where wells could supply the 14 mgd that an efficient plant might require, and another 228 where surface reservoirs capable of supplying six mgd (the amount needed in plants using what in 1975 were considered "extreme conservation measures") could be built.
Hydroelectricity produced by turbines turned by falling water is not something one automatically associates with Illinois, where waterfalls are as rare as clear-running rivers. Water used to be a major source of energy in Illinois, however; French missionaries built a water-powered mill as early as 1754.
Today hydroelectric plants in Illinois—six of them altogether, all in the northern part of the state—supply a miniscule 0.11 percent of the state's electricity. They could supply more, and even if hydropower cannot become a major energy source for the state it could (so studies suggest) become a major one in certain parts of it. (As analysts of the then-Illinois Institute of Natural Resources have put it, "The economics of [hydro] are site specific.") The town of Carlyle in Clinton County, for example, was awarded a $1.2 million Department of Energy grant in 1980 to build a generating plant at the Lake Carlyle dam; the dam would save the town's municipal electric company 500,000 gallons of diesel oil a year.
Illinois is not exactly rich in hydropower sites, but it is reasonably affluent. The old IINR has identified 114 existing dams in Illinois which together could generate 176 megawatts of electricity. The generation of electric power is a benign use of water, which is neither warmed nor polluted nor evaporated by the process. Hydropower can complicate water management, however. During hot summer days, for instance, demand for power is highest when water levels in most reservoirs and rivers are lowest, and the release of water during peak power periods can aggravate flooding downstream.
An exportable commodity?
Perhaps the ultimate industrial use of water—more than agriculture, navigation or energy—is its sale as an exportable commodity. Of the various riches needed to make permanent their temporary eclipse of the industrial Midwest, the "Sunbelt" states lack only one in abundance—water. The Midwest has water, and a few states are eager to sell it to their thirsty cousins. In May, South Dakota announced that it would ship more than 16 billion gallons of Missouri River water a year to the Powder River basin in Wyoming. The water would be used to carry coal in a slurry via pipeline to power plants in the South. South Dakota's cut: $9 million a year.
Some Midwestern governors and Canadian officials have taken to referring to their states and provinces as the "OPEC of water." (At a recent meeting of upper Midwest governors and Canadian provincial leaders, Ontario Premier William Davis asked, "Have you ever calculated what the value of the Great Lakes is at $25 a barrel?") The issue has divided the region's leaders with the Great Lakes states generally opposed to large-scale diversions of water. They argue that rather than send water (and with it factories and jobs) to industry outside the Midwest, they ought to force industry to come back to the Midwest for water.
And Illinois? In one sense Illinois may be said to be already exporting huge amounts of water, in the form of corn and soybeans and steel. And cheap, plentiful water has always been dangled as bait to industry in Illinois. Most Illinois communities still use what is called a "declining block" water rate structure under which the price per unit goes down as consumption goes up. Such rate structures were adopted usually to provide incentive to large consumers.
But so rich was Illinois's natural inheritance that it has seldom had to officially consider the impact of the accumulating industrial demands on its water resource. The state's days as a water spendthrift may be nearing an end, at least if the Illinois State Water Plan Task Force appointed by Gov. James R. Thompson in 1980 has its way. As the task force has noted in its plan of study, "Planners, developers, business interests and governmental entities have long presumed [sic] that . . . the availability of a dependable water supply source is a given." However, "recent trends . . . suggest that future competition for water may lead to regional conflicts." The task force adds, "It is seen that the State is not in a position to address completely the complex issues involved at this time."
The task force has tentatively recommended an "intense" three-year study of state and regional water needs for energy, irrigation, industry, and so on. What may result from such a study in the way of new policies is impossible to say. It is one thing to call oneself the OPEC of water. It is another to act like it. The end result of such official inquiries may be nothing more than a new awareness that industrial water, cooling water, irrigation water, drinking water, and shipping water are all the same water.
As it has with energy and farmland (to name just two other precious natural resources whose scarcity and price have increased in recent years) Illinois has predicated its water policies on the assumption of abundance. Legislating for scarcity—by charging for what used to be free, by allocating what used to be available to all, by not allowing what used to be automatic—is a skill not yet learned. The question seems not to be whether Illinois will learn it but how soon. Even Illinois cannot continue forever to have its water and drink it too. ●
Sidebar: The problems with Lock & Dam 26
No single project better illustrates how tricky it is to turn rivers into highways than Lock & Dam 26. L&D 26 stands athwart the Mississippi River just downstream from where the Illinois enters it at Alton. Built in 1938, the dam and 600-foot lock is one of 28 on the Mississippi between Minneapolis and the Missouri. Some 70 million tons of cargo a year, including much of Illinois's vital grain exports, pass through L&D 26.
A little too much cargo passes through L&D 26, in fact. Barge tows typically must line up for three days to file through. In 1968 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed building a new dam and 1,200-foot replacement lock at Alton, along with provision for a second lock. If built, the two new locks would enable barge traffic to double, even treble. The project has the enthusiastic support of barge companies, grain interests, and town boosters up and down the river. They were joined by most of Illinois' congressional delegation, who helped each other carry home this very large ($800 million, in round numbers) piece of pork.
However, it was opposed vehemently by an odd coalition. Railroad firms saw it as a further federal subsidy to their barge-pushing competitors. Environmentalists were worried that increased barge traffic would increase turbidity of the stream, with unhappy effects on the river ecology. More industrial development along its banks would lead to more levees and draining of wetlands. Worse, they feared that the new locks would be the first stage of a long-standing Corps proposal to deepen the Mississippi shipping channel from nine to 12 feet—a project which would pose certain threats to the Illinois as well, since traffic which moved on a deepened Mississippi would not be able to move on the Illinois unless it too were deepened.
Lawsuits by opponents filed in 1974 led to an injunction halting the project. A compromise was reached in Congress in 1978. The replacement lock would be built, but a second lock would await further environmental studies. That got construction going again but did not stifle controversy. Congress, urged by project supporters, delayed funding the necessary studies, then refused to grant an extension for their completion. At the moment it looks as if a second lock may be built with or without definitive environmental studies, although opponents promise further legal action if the Corps tries.
At one point or another, the Illinois Department of Transportation, its EPA, and its Natural History Survey staff said that the new L&D 26 either wasn't needed, or that not enough was known about its effects on the river. There was wide skepticism of the Corps' economic analysis. ("Witchcraft," said one critic.) In a crowning irony, congressional supporters of the project cut money for further environmental studies, calling them unnecessary, even though the Corps itself, officially admitting the need for more information, had proposed investigations of its own which were both more costly and exhaustive than those which so irritated impatient congressional foes.
Work proceeds on the replacement lock and dam. ●