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An Assessment of Water Loss Among Lake Michigan Permittees in Illinois

Aging and leaky infrastructure wastes potable water and taxpayer dollars. The magnitude of the problem is considerable and of particular concern in the Chicago region given the rules that govern use of Lake Michigan water. Through the LTA program, CMAP and the Center for Neighborhood Technology studied water loss control practices and challenges faced by Lake Michigan water suppliers, resulting in a report with recommendations for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) water allocation program. The resulting report, An Assessment of Water Loss Among Lake Michigan Permittees in Illinois, found that over the last several years, 21 percent of permittees have been out of compliance with the current 8 percent annual water loss standard set by IDNR. In 2012, over 22 billion gallons of Lake Michigan water, worth between an estimated $64 million and $147 million, were "lost" -- this could have served the residential needs of nearly 700,000 people for one year. 

Chronic or excessive water loss also means that a community's water allocation is potentially set too high. An allocation that accommodates excessive water loss, when multiplied by numerous communities with a similar problem, could reduce the amount of water available for new allocations in the future. While Lake Michigan is not 100 percent fully allocated, the findings of Water 2050 suggest that the possibility of full allocation exists as population continues to grow and as some groundwater-dependent communities seek alternative sources for drinking water. The report goes on to identify seven recommendations for IDNR to advance the Lake Michigan Water Allocation Program in the face of these challenges.

Relevance to Local Governments and Taxpayers

  • The magnitude of water loss is almost certain to be wasting taxpayer dollars in addition to the valuable commodity itself.
     
  • Given the state of drinking water infrastructure, water rates likely do not match the magnitude of repair and replacement needed. Thus, a more concerted effort to employ full-cost-of-service water rates is appropriate and necessary.
     
  • Part of the problem stems from the fact that the matter of water loss and state of infrastructure is insufficiently discussed with elected officials (e.g. most commonly once per year) and rarely communicated to citizen customers.

Next Steps for Municipalities

Communities that use Lake Michigan for their drinking water can take advantage of free American Water Works Association training and technical assistance opportunities to improve their water-loss auditing and control. To learn about upcoming opportunities, contact Tim Loftus (tloftus@cmap.illinois.gov or 312-386-8666). The Illinois Clean Water Initiative can also help local governments update their aging water infrastructure to prevent water loss.

Methodology

CMAP partnered with the Center for Neighborhood Technology to analyze water use data (2007-12) compiled by IDNR from annual audit reports required of communities with an allocation of lake water; and on-line survey questionnaire featuring 23 questions sent to 172 community water suppliers with public infrastructure to manage; site visits with six communities for an in-depth discussion of the water-loss control issues; and additional site visits with three communities to begin to gauge response to the industry standard water-loss control tool available to help solve the problem.

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