Illinois: The OPEC of water
Part 1 of "Water Resources in Illinois"
Some ancient peoples, seeking to explain the apparently limitless rainfall which waters the earth, believed that all of outer space was made of water. Presumably most Illinoisans do not believe that—even if they often act as if they do. Except for sunlight and oxygen, there is no substance more vital to life than water. In places where water is in short supply, wars have been fought to obtain it, and civilizations have withered for the lack of it. In Illinois and the Midwest, however, water has always been. plentiful enough to take for granted, save for the occasional inconvenient drought. As a result, Illinoisans for the most part continue to regard water as they once did energy—as inexhaustible, theirs as a matter of right and, except for the cost of delivering it, free.
There is an astounding amount of water on earth, an estimated 326 million cubic miles of it. Yet only a tiny fraction of this bounty is directly usable by humans. The vast bulk of it is in the form of atmospheric water vapor, sea water, or frozen polar ice caps. A scant 0.6 percent of the total supply exists as liquid fresh water. Essentially all of the earth's supply was formed billions of years ago in the caldrons of ancient volcanoes and has been recycled ever since. The same molecule which falls today on a corn field in Putnam County may have watered a carboniferous fern forest or slaked the thirst of a wooly mammoth in Europe. Water is at once changeless and constantly changing.
And constantly moving. Leaving oceans, lake and streams through evaporation and plants through transpiration from leaves, water returns to the atmosphere. This moisture rises with heat from the sun, is shuffled by winds and coalesces into clouds which when cooled drop their contents back to the surface as rain or snow. Eventually this water makes its way back into the oceans in trips that may take anywhere from a few days to several thousand years. This hydrologic cycle is simple enough to grasp in outline. But the precise local effects of this movement of water into and out of the atmosphere are numbingly complex, being influenced by terrain, vegetation, winds, airborne pollution, even (it is thought) sun spots.
However it arrives—and the long-term ability of meteorologists to predict precipitation is little better than chance—there is a lot of water in Illinois. The state is drained by four of the continent's major streams—the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Wabash and the lower Illinois—with the result that water from 23 states crosses Illinois on its wanderings. Illinois also is attached, like a calf to a teat, to Lake Michigan, which is part of the largest fresh water system in the world. Even in the heavily populated northeast counties, the ratio of potential water supply to demand is roughly six to one, and in the extreme southern tip it is 2,500 to one.
Illinois's lakes and streams, along with its extensive underground water systems, are replenished by precipitation. Most of it originates in the Gulf of Mexico and the subtropical Atlantic, which heave great sighs of wet air into the Midwest. There the moisture collides with cold fronts from Canada which typically sweep across Illinois from the northwest, and falls as rain or snow.
This manna falls unevenly, varying from region to region within the state, from season to season and from year to year. Average annual precipitation varies from 32 inches in the northeastern counties to 46 inches in the extreme south, although these totals may fluctuate by as much as 40 percent in any one year. The annual discharge from the state's 900 streams alone in an average year is enough to flood the northern half of the state to a depth of 9 inches and the wetter southern half to 15 inches, even though copious amounts of water are intercepted on the way to the sea by the roots of farm crops and returned to the atmosphere as water vapor.
Much of this water is trapped temporarily in surface impoundments. There are few natural lakes in Illinois, but man-made impoundments (including an estimated 80,000 farm ponds) cover nearly 1.5 million acres of the state's land area. In addition, there are sites for another 800 sizable impoundments (mostly in the hilly southern counties) which if built could boost the state's overall surface storage capacity sixfold.
Wealth of water
However, as is the case with coal and oil, Illinois's real riches lie underground. Today an estimated 5 million Illinoisans draw water from the earth. The water well is a staple of rural life, but nearly 9 of every 10 public water systems in Illinois also draw upon groundwater. Combined, groundwater users withdraw roughly 1 billion gallons per day (gpd) of the total 43 billion gpd withdrawn by all users from all sources in the state. The estimated potential safe withdrawal rate—the rate at which aquifers can be refilled or recharged by nature—is seven billion gpd. And surface water and ground water represent only the residuum of the precipitation which falls upon Illinois naturally. Hydrologists estimate that of the atmospheric moisture which daily wafts across the state, only five percent falls as rain or snow—a statistic which has spurred research into what the experts like to call "planned enhancement of precipitation"—cloud seeding—so that we may someday turn the skies on and off like a faucet.
Indeed, so rich is Illinois in water, and so parched are the burgeoning cities of the Sunbelt, that officials in Illinois and neighboring states have begun touting the Midwest as a future "OPEC of water." They envision the day when Illinois will export water for a price. Exporting water is not as new an idea as it might seem. Illinois has been exporting water for years, chiefly in the form of farm crops (a standard bushel of corn contains a gallon of water, but requires in all, 2,500 gallons per bushel to bring it to maturity).
Water has always been a key ingredient in Illinois's economic success. The lower Illinois River alone, dammed to create a nine-foot navigation channel for barges, carried roughly 86 million tons of cargo in 1978, much of it grain bound for ocean-going transports via the Gulf of Mexico or the St. Lawrence. The eminently farmible contours of the state's midsection are textbook examples of water-carved topography. Water turned the mill wheels and carried the hogs and whiskey to 19th century markets, and well into the 20th century the state boasted a surprising and sizable fisheries industry, centered on Lake Michigan and the lower Illinois.
The biggest nonfarm user of water in Illinois is industry. Of the nearly 43 billion gpd withdrawn statewide in 1980, nearly 41 billion was taken by industry. Most of this water, pumped through electric generating plants for cooling and steam generation, comes from supplies (chiefly surface impoundments) built specifically for this purpose. Of the 2.1 billion gpd used by the state's residential and commercial sectors, 1.8 billion comes from public water systems and the other 312 million from rural wells.
Per capita water use in Illinois has actually declined somewhat in recent years. Most of this economy has been achieved by the industrial sector, however. The typical Illinoisan remains something of a water wastrel. An average Illinois family of four which gets its water from a public water supply used 712 gpd in 1980.
The average house in 1982 is no more efficient at using water than the average Illinois automobile was at using gasoline in 1973. Although impressive efficiencies can be achieved through simple steps (such as not using a full tub of water to wash half a tub of laundry, which might be described as the domestic equivalent of driving 55 mph), the design of houses mitigates against water-saving. Houses designed to recapture laundry and shower water—so-called "gray water"—for toilet flushing and similar innovations can cut per capita consumption by as much as 40 percent without significant alterations in lifestyle.
But as is also the case with energy, it is not in the direct use of water that our real extravagance lies. The indirect use of water—to produce energy, to manufacture common goods and process food—is markedly higher. This invisible water use is sometimes staggeringly high. It takes nearly ten gallons of water to process a can of vegetables, nearly 1,300 gallons to make a ton of steel, 150,000 cubic feet to make a ton of Dacron. Washing a car, in short, doesn't take nearly as much water as making one. As a result, total daily per capita water use in Illinois, both direct and indirect, amounts to roughly 3,700 gallons.
Even such apparent extravagance would seem to pose no problems of shortage in a state so endowed. However, the mere presence of water is not enough. For water to be useful, it must be available in appropriate quantities in the appropriate locale, in a usable form and at an affordable price. Also, it must be relatively free of contaminants which might render it unfit for its intended use, whether they are sediments, disease organisms, toxic chemicals, dissolved minerals, or (in the case of navigable streams) sand bars.
Much of the human history of the state therefore consists of the attempts to find, transport, dam, purify, speed up, or slow down water. This is a vast enterprise, which so far has cost billions and billions of dollars for drainage, sewage treatment plants, water mains and pumping stations, levees and channelizations, testing and well-digging, chlorination and reservoirs.
The scale of these modifications is staggering. Whole rivers have been "channelized" which in effect converts them into drainage ditches. In the late 1880s, after a two-day drenching rain flushed the city's sewers into the Chicago River and thence into Lake Michigan, Chicago undertook to reverse the flow of the river so it drained into the Des Plaines River, 28 miles away, and ultimately into the Illinois. Storm sewers typically drain into sanitary sewers, so that when it rains heavily the latter overflow treatment plants, allowing untreated or partially treated sewage to empty into watercourses. Equipping downstate cities with separate systems, it is estimated, would cost nearly half a billion new dollars. In Chicago, the cost of the storm water diversion project known as "Deep Tunnel" has been officially pegged at $3 billion but may go as high as $11 billion.
Water's many uses
Human water needs tend to be stable and recurring; nature's own distribution system tends to be dynamic and, if not haphazard, at least working on cycles which are indifferent to those of people. Pioneer Illinois, for example, had too much water; much of the rich farmland of the Grand Prairie of east central Illinois, for example, was low, marshy ground which bred malarial fevers and had to be drained before it could be put to plow. Even today, in spite of the roughly $15 million spent each year in flood control measures, floods still cause $350 million in damage each year in Illinois, and the toll is climbing.
Other apparent anomalies abound. Central Illinois farm fields receive from 30 to 40 inches of precipitation a year. But only about 20 inches fall during the critical growing season, which means that farmers must draw on moisture stored in upper soil layers to make up the deficit. In dry years, that moisture is low or missing altogether, and many otherwise fertile soils cannot hold moisture even when it is available. For many farmers, the result is an unhappy choice between irrigation and loss.
Eccentricities of climate also complicate life for water planners. There are 385 miles separating Illinois's northern and southern borders, and southern Illinois, lying closer to the Gulf of Mexico, receives more of that body's bounty of atmospheric moisture. Generally, annual rainfall amounts tend to increase the farther south one goes in Illinois. But because the cold fronts which trigger precipitation often dissipate as they travel from Canada southward across the state, these wet southern Illinois counties are also more subject to droughts. Consider also that the rivers flow southward (creating much of the state's border) and that southern Illinois is the termini of several major rivers; thus, this most drought-prone part of the state is also the part most prone to floods.
Thus, although the overall abundance of water in Illinois is high, that water often is in the wrong place at the wrong time or in the wrong chemical condition. The result to date in Illinois, fortunately, has been no more than spot shortages, temporary droughts, occasional "boil orders"—inconvenience rather than catastrophe. But water conflicts are expected to multiply, both because demand is expanding and because the usable supply may be shrinking.
Nature is responsible for neither of these changes. People are. Overall, both the quality and quantity of the state's water supplies are probably better than they were 50 years ago. But state water officials report that, as the 1980s began, the average rates of withdrawals in Illinois had for the first time grown to the same order of magnitude as the average supply. In the Chicago suburbs, deep aquifers first tapped in the 1860s are being emptied three times faster than they are being recharged, with the result that water tables in that six-county area have been dropping at an average rate of nine feet per year. Population growth and diminished storage capacity in surface reservoirs due to siltation has caused water shortages downstate as well, such as the one which led to the importation of water in the Saline County town of Eldorado in 1981.
Illinois's water supply system may face brand new demands as well. A single large coal synfuels plant would gulp as much as 81 million gpd (as much as a city of 2,500). Illinois farmers in 1980 irrigated only 140,000 acres, but the amount of irrigated acreage in the state has been growing by 15 percent a year in the last few years. While studies have concluded that the state can slake even these thirsts, doing so without disruption in supplies (especially to downstream users) would probably require a degree of planning and coordination so far lacking in the state's water management programs.
The demands on the state's water resources tend to multiply with population, and again with affluence. In addition to its utility as drinking water and industrial raw material, water is increasingly valuable as a recreational resource. There are approximately 825,000 Illinoisans who fish, 265,000 who boat and 63,000 who hunt waterfowl. As a rule, recreation is not inconsistent with other water uses; bass like clear water as much as sanitary engineers (if for different reasons) and neither the canoeist nor the local water commissioner finds much to cheer in a lake filled with silt.
Navigation is another use to which water is put, and one which seems likely to increase in importance if coal joins grains on Illinois's list of export commodities. But the needs of a barge and the needs of a bass—or a bass fisherman—are not always complementary. Turbidity caused by tug propellers and dams built to maintain rivers at a navigable depth (two common remodelings) degrade rivers as wildlife habitats.
Indeed, the interests of most water users are not just contrary but contradictory. One example: A proposal by the City of Springfield to divert water from a branch of the Sangamon River during droughts was objected to by the local sanitary district, which reminded the city that the district required a certain minimum flow through the stream in order to dilute its treated sewage to acceptably low levels of concentration.
Even with the expected increased pressure on supply, Illinois wells and reservoirs will not soon go dry; even after more than a century of pumping, the deep aquifers in the Chicago area still can yield up to 60 percent of their original flow. But a water source need not go dry to cease being useful. Over-drafting of aquifers—what hydrologists call "mining"—can reduce the base flow of surface streams fed by it so much that once-dilute concentrations of dissolved minerals become unacceptably high. (It is not a topic which often makes its way into headlines, but the buildup of scaly minerals on pipes is a multimillion dollar headache for homeowners and building managers across the state.)
Most worrisome of all in the opinion of many water experts is the contamination of water supplies by toxic chemicals and other pollutants. Water is inevitably altered as a result of its transactions with humans. In its passage over farm fields, for example, it waters crops. But that water which is not directly absorbed by soil or plant roots runs off the surface, picking up hitchhikers in the form of soil particles, which in turn carry assorted chemical baggage in the form of pesticides and fertilizers. Both soil particles and farm chemicals eventually make their way into water supplies. Last summer six downstate cities were put on notice by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) that their water contained levels of nitrate higher than those considered safe. One of the sources of nitrates (along with nitrogen-rich effluent from sewage treatment plants) is nitrogen runoff fertilizer which washes off farm fields with spring rains. Pesticides are washed away too, and the sediment which collects in lakes and ponds in rural watersheds reduces their water-storing capacity by as much as 2.3 percent a year. For these reasons, agriculturally related soil erosion has been designated Illinois's No. 1 water quality problem by the IEPA.
There are experts, however, who complain that moving sediment from one place to another is a natural function of streams. Potentially more worrisome, they argue, is the contamination of water by toxic chemicals and other hazardous wastes. Because there was always some nearby, and because it conveniently carries whatever one puts into it to someplace else, water has always been given civilization's more disagreeable tasks. Human sewage and factory wastes were routinely dumped into the nearest stream, or buried in such a way as to eventually settle into groundwater supplies. There is a lesson in the fact that so many 19th century cities so befouled the streams which ran through them (streams whose clear-flowing charms were always offered in pioneer reminiscences among the reasons for settling near them) that city fathers eventually paved them over, converting them literally as well as figuratively into sewers.
Until well into the 20th century the state of municipal water systems in many parts of Illinois was crude. Droughts were aggravated by limited capacity, and supplies were subject to contamination by upstream users. Epidemics of water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever and cholera were common. Attempts to clean up Illinois's water led to some of the state's more memorable campaigns ("Clean water, clean politics!" read one slogan in Springfield in 1909) as improvements in this most vital of public services became an issue for progressive reformers.
Threats to Illinois water
It may be too early to say, but it is very possible that water will again become a heated political issue. The vastly expensive water supply and treatment infrastructure erected beginning at the turn of the century was intended to defend the populace against essentially bacterial assaults. But new industries using new materials have added to the list of potential contaminants. Illinois ranks second among the states in the amount of officially designated hazardous wastes generated each year. Such wastes include heavy metals, solvents, pesticides, PCBs (polychloride biphenyls) and others. Many are suspected carcinogens; although the health effects of many are unknown, most are considered potentially dangerous.
Such wastes have been dumped directly into streams and lakes (there are an estimated 1.5 million pounds of cancer-causing PCBs in the sediments of Waukegan harbor alone), pumped into abandoned coal mines, left by "midnight dumpers" along rural creeks, buried in landfills. Not all such disposals were illegal, but most of them have since been shown to have been ill-advised. For example, until the mid-1970s it was still widely believed that leachate from landfills would be cleansed by its passage below ground. It is now recognized that it is not, that contaminants travel underground, and landfilling toxic wastes—a method offered until recently as a way to protect water supplies from contamination by providing an alternative to dumping in streams—may become the biggest threat to them.
Once groundwater supplies are contaminated, they are virtually impossible to reclaim. (Because of water's often slow underground travel speed, it can be decades after a pollution episode before the contamination is even discovered.) Existing treatment technology is ill-equipped to deal with these new classes of contaminants. In fact (in what may be the crudest irony of all) there is the possibility that traditional treatment techniques such as chlorination may actually make things worse, since under some conditions chlorine reacts with substances commonly found in water to create chloroform, a carcinogen).
In many ways, then, the threats to Illinois's water resources have never been greater. Yet Illinois enters the new water wars of the '80s and '90s ill-equipped and ill-led. Although Illinois has been virtually alone in supporting a scientific survey of water resources since 1895, water experts acknowledge that what still isn't known about water will keep them busy for at least another 87 years. How do pollutants travel underground? What chemical interactions shape pollutants once they're in water? In what concentrations are certain chemicals dangerous? What are the flow needs of various aquatic organisms? What is the precise impact of humans on riparian environments? How many acres of wetlands survive in Illinois? Which aquifers are vulnerable to contamination by past pollution? What effect, if any, is "acid rain" having on Illinois's crops? Its cities?
A certain ignorance is unavoidable among environmental regulators in an era in which laboratories invent new and potentially dangerous substances (roughly 30,000 different ones are now in use) faster than they can record them. But experts, in Illinois as elsewhere, agree only that something needs to be done. Critics charge that the USEPA's standards for some substances are too stringent, or that they regulate the wrong substances, or that they require the removal of substances which would disappear in any event as a result of naturally occurring chemical transformations. Setting clean water rules will require some delicate calculations of human interest. Which is the greater threat to the public weal? Typhoid fever or cancers caused by the agents added to water to eliminate typhus? How much is it worth to make water safe? In 1981 operators of 11 sewage treatment plants along the DuPage River protested rules which would require them to spend nearly $30 million to control ammonia nitrogen discharges—a chemical, they alleged, which is less toxic than the chlorine with which they were disinfecting wastewater from their plants.
Just as water crosses many boundaries in nature, so it crosses many bureaucratic boundaries. In Illinois there are 14 state agencies which deal directly with water issues, which complicates planning. Likewise, the state's water use law is inchoate and derives from the first-come, first-served resource ethic which evolved in the last century. Historically, water fee structures have kept water prices low—too low in the view of resource economists who argue that low revenues have hampered the upgrading of treatment facilities. And while the situation in Illinois is nowhere near as dire as in Boston and other Eastern cities, the physical plants in the state's cities are aging. Some water mains date from the Civil War era, and money to repair or replace them is likely to remain in short supply for a while. Complicating the financial situation of local water systems was the headlong expansion of water service (financed largely by federal dollars) into rural districts during the boom years of the 1960s and 1970s, which left such systems with enlarged maintenance costs.
In many ways, Illinois may be said to be just beginning to deal with its water problems. The challenge first enunciated in the state in the 1880s—to provide its citizens with dependable supplies of safe water for drinking, recreation, industry and transport—remains valid. Once, most Illinoisans thought the job had been done. Whether they will be able to think so again, or when, is not at all certain. ●
Sidebar: Buried valleys, hidden rivers, ancient seas
Viewed in geologic time, the seemingly immutable landscape of Illinois is continually in the process of reinvention. Nature is a ceaseless rearranger, using water—in the form of glaciers, floods, rainfall and ocean deeps—to build up land then wash it away as easily as waves wash away sand castles on a beach.
Illinois's extensive groundwater resources especially are the result of these manipulations. For example, the valleys of the major rivers which today drain the state—the Mississippi, the Wabash, the Ohio and the lower Illinois — are very wide, clearly beyond the relatively meager erosive muscle of the modern streams which now inhabit them.
But these rivers weren't always so small. During the last of the glaciations, torrents of meltwater pouring off the receding ice sheets—described by scientists as "sluiceways"—carved these valleys. The water sliced through the loess deposits to a depth of 100 feet or more below the present valley floors. This meltwater bore with it countless tons of sand and gravel which gradually settled into and filled these valleys. The extensive sand and gravel deposits were in turn buried beneath newer soil layers, creating aquifers flanking the rivers which are up to 100 feet deep and in places several miles wide.
Another set of aquifers had been formed earlier, during a stable, preglacial period which lasted for 200 million years. In that era the ancestors of Illinois's modern rivers traveled wholly different courses. The ancient Mississippi, for instance, snaked across the state from Rock Island southeast to Putnam County before turning south and southwest along a path which paralleled the very much younger lower Illinois. The ancient Ohio ran west across central Illinois, joining the Mississippi near what is now Bloomington.
These rivers cut valleys into the upper layers of the bedrock which underlies the state. These preglacial valleys were subsequently filled by the same advancing glaciers which obliterated all but the subterranean evidence of their sojourns here. Today these valleys too lie buried, roughly 300 feet below the modern surface, forming aquifers ranging from three to ten miles in width.
Below even these deposits are layer upon layer of bedrock, the easel, as it were, upon which the relatively recent rivers painted their effects. These layers are made basically of sedimentary rocks such as sandstones, limestones, and dolomites which were deposited at the bottom of the warm seas that repeatedly inundated Illinois beginning 600 million years ago. There is water in these formations as well, locked in the interstices of these surprisingly porous rocks. However, unlike the aquifers which lie closer to the surface, these deep bedrock aquifers are often quite salty. In places the water is as much as four times as salty as sea water—which it once was. Because fresh water is less dense than salt water, in places fresh water "floats" atop the saltier water; this explains why water from wells which are drilled too deep sometimes turns brackish. It is rather like drilling into time, and tapping into an ancient, invisible sea.
The aquifers formed from old valleys were laid down by rivers, whose courses tend to be chaotic, while the bedrock was laid down by the slow accretion of matter falling like a gentle snow on the ancient seabeds; the valley aquifers tend to be spotty in their distribution, while the bedrock aquifers are much more uniform, stretching virtually unchanged for hundreds of square miles.
Even so, the sand and gravel deposits associated with rivers (including smaller aquifers laid down by their tributaries) harbor the bulk of the state's groundwater resource. The deposits which flank the modern rivers cover only about 6 percent of the state's land area but contain an estimated 65 percent of its subterranean water. By a lucky accident of geology, the older preglacial deposits lie between these, with the result that groundwater resources are fairly evenly dispersed across the northern two-thirds of Illinois.
In the southern third of the state, however, where glaciers resided only briefly, the situation is different. The bedrock is largely shale, which is too tight to hold water, and much of the water which does exist is too mineralized to be of much use. There are few glacial sand or gravel deposits. What there is, is a lot of clay in the upper soil layers. Clay is relatively impermeable, and thus a custom-made lake bottom, and this clay coupled with the region's hilly terrain makes it an ideal locale for surface reservoirs. ●