Joliet, Ill., can no longer go with the flow. Faced with the prospect of a diminishing water supply, over the last few years, city leaders dove into the problem and found a solution that will keep its residents hydrated for generations to come.
“It’s a credit to our engaged residents and dedicated city staff that we were able to address this challenge head-on and reach an agreement upon which Joliet can build its future,” said Joliet mayor Bob O’Dekirk in an April press release.
Tapping into a new resource
Like a lot of communities across the U.S., Joliet draws its groundwater supply from a network of wells located throughout the city. While this system has always replenished itself in the past, a 2018 report by the Illinois State Water Survey found that the Ironton – Galesville aquifer that supplies those wells would be insufficient to meet the city’s usage demands by 2030. Armed with the urgent need to identify and tap into a new water supply, the city’s Department of Public Utilities announced a multifaceted initiative that would allow it to examine its options and encourage its residents to rethink their water usage.
In March 2019, Joliet embarked on the first phase of its alternative water source program and identified 14 potential options to meet the city’s needs. After an initial evaluation, the list was narrowed to the five most viable: the Illinois River, Kankakee River and Lake Michigan via either the Chicago Department of Water Management, DuPage Water Commission or a new Indiana intake.
After determining that Lake Michigan would be the community’s best bet, a consultant was hired to assess whether the water should be acquired through the Windy City or through a new intake in Indiana. The findings were presented to the public in December 2020 and the following month, the Joliet City Council opted for Chicago. A historic 100-year contract was announced in April.
“This decision gives the citizens of Joliet all of the knowledge and resources for a system that purifies and distributes over 1 billion gallons of water each day to over 5.3 million residents in northeast Illinois,” O’Dekirk said.
Naturally, shifting Joliet’s water supply from groundwater wells to Lake Michigan is an expensive undertaking. According to the contract, the project is expected to cost nearly $1 billion in pipeline, suction wells and pumping stations as it connects with the Chicago Water System at its Southwest Pumping Station. If Joliet were acting on this project alone, it was estimated that the average monthly residential utility bill would quadruple over the next two decades.
But the city is not alone thanks to the Grand Prairie Water Commission, which was announced on Aug. 18, 2022. It consists of Joliet and five other municipalities: Channahon, Crest Hill, Minooka, Romeoville and Shorewood, which had also been evaluating alternative water sources including the Lake Michigan option.
Together, the communities in the commission will require more than 55 million gallons of water per day by 2050. By pooling resources, they can share the cost of construction, operation and maintenance of the infrastructure based on water usage. Joliet expects this arrangement to increase the average monthly water bill, which was $34 in 2021, to only $78 or $88 by 2030.
“This has been a long time coming, and this step forward is a visible sign of the hard work these communities have put in,” Hugh O’Hara, coordinator for the Grand Prairie Water Commission, stated in a press release. “Having a sustainable, high-quality water source is essential to our region’s future success, and I applaud these communities for understanding the stakes and working together for the best solution.”
Construction on the planned infrastructure is scheduled to begin in the third quarter of 2024 and continue into the first half of 2029. Since 2021, Joliet and the other cities have been concentrating their efforts on land acquisition, design and permitting.
The group plans to use a combination of funding sources to pay for the project, including the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 2014 – a federal low-interest loan program administered by the EPA for eligible water and wastewater initiatives. It will also tap into the State Revolving Fund, a low-interest loan program administered by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and revenue bonds.
Then, on May 4, the Grand Prairie Water Commission received a check from Congressman Bill Foster for $3.45 million as part of a federal allocation for the development of the infrastructure needed by the cooperative.
“Congressman Foster stood with us when we announced this commission last year, and the Community Project Funding shows he continues to stand with us in Washington,” said Romeoville Mayor John Noa during the presentation of the ceremonial check.
Joliet and members of the Grand Prairie Water Commission are working hard to keep the public engaged throughout the planning and construction process while also educating them on the ways in which they can conserve water in their homes. It is not expected that the water source change will require residents to change any infrastructure inside their homes, although the city will continue its lead service line inventory and replacement program to mitigate risk associated with lead services in older houses.
The city of Joliet is doing everything it can to mitigate the risk associated with switching water sources so that its customers, especially those with lead services, are not impacted by the shift. “We are excited to be a leader in the development of a long-term water supply for ourselves and the region,” O’Dekirk stated. “Our future and the future of all who live here will be better because of the decisions we made today.”