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Protect and enhance the integrity of aquatic systems

Protect and enhance the integrity of aquatic systems

The integrity of the region’s aquatic resources refers to the chemical, physical, and biological quality of these systems to support both human and non-human use. Maintaining these systems' health is important not only for communities and residents, but for the economic, ecological, and recreational values that they convey to the region, in monetary terms as well as the ecosystem services they provide. Lake Michigan is the single most significant water resource to the region as a whole, and is inseparable from its integration with the rest of the Great Lakes and the Chicago Area Waterway System. All of the region’s stakeholders play a pivotal role in managing the Lake's water quality and supply in partnership with other Great Lakes states and Canada.[1] It is also important to note that the natural integrity of Lake Michigan's coastal environment is critical, not only for adjacent communities, but as nearshore and coastal habitat and a critical migratory flyway.


[GRAPHIC TO COME: A photo essay of the region’s water resources.]


The need for clean, abundant, and reliable water resources tends to be taken for granted until shortages, flooding, or low water quality make the water unfit for its intended use. Though water quality, habitat, and ecological conditions have improved in parts of the region since adoption of the Clean Water Act, the majority of our aquatic, wetland, and riparian ecosystems remain in a poor to moderate state of health due to direct and indirect effects of development, transportation systems, industrial and wastewater discharges, agriculture, and other impacts. Climate change will put additional stress on our water resource systems and infrastructure, as higher water temperatures, more variable and extreme precipitation, and drought cycles alter existing ecological conditions and make habitat inhospitable to native aquatic plants and animals, and more susceptible to non-native and invasive species. More broadly, recognizing that climate impacts on other parts of the nation and world are likely to drive population to the water-rich Great Lakes region, the region should begin to prepare today.

Our fragmented management of water systems reflects multiple agencies, each with its own separate mission and programs. In addition, other sectors such as public health, energy, agriculture, and transportation make policy decisions that influence water resource outcomes. Some water resource challenges can, in fact, result when an agency takes action in isolation without considering the interconnected nature of those resources. Cumulatively, individual development decisions -- including agricultural practices, the simple clearing of native riparian vegetation, and individual developments -- can have significant and lasting impacts on neighboring communities and downstream resources, including increased stormwater runoff and flooding, reduced water quality, and decreased drinking water quality and availability. For example, the extent of impervious surfaces associated with urban development is highly correlated with the quality of a watershed’s streams and other resources. Due to this correlation, impervious surface area serves as an indicator of the biological health and physical integrity of surface waters. Inadequate empirical data about the many factors influencing these resources' health necessitates the use of imperviousness as a proxy. The Watershed Integrity local strategy map illustrates the region's percentage of impervious surface by watershed, while the Stream Quality map shows the location of higher-quality aquatic resources among those that have been assessed. Both maps demonstrate the impact of urban development on aquatic resources. It should be noted that only half of the region’s waters have been assessed, and other high quality streams are known to exist. Headwater streams make up a majority of stream miles in the region but have not been assessed, highlighting the need for additional data and monitoring. Most of the remaining higher quality aquatic systems are found in the collar counties, where imperviousness and riparian modifications remain low relative to the rest of the region, and where watershed conditions are more likely to support higher quality streams. Future development in those areas should strive to implement appropriate designs and development practices that protect and enhance these aquatic systems.


[GRAPHIC TO COME: An illustrated watershed diagram highlighting stormwater management best practices to improve water quality.]


Effective water resource management can address some of these challenges and improve the region’s natural assets. ON TO 2050 reaffirms the GO TO 2040 recommendation to integrate planning with water resource management, and suggests a conceptual goal of an integrated water resource framework for managing the region’s water assets.[2] This framework requires both careful consideration of impacts and coordination among decision makers to protect ecosystem health and sustainability.


The region can advance integrated water resource management in a number of ways. Coordination among existing state and federal programs can identify cost-effective ways to maintain water and wastewater infrastructure while protecting natural assets. Watershed plans help identify cross-jurisdictional solutions and can be expanded beyond water quality goals to address additional water resource objectives. Watershed-based workgroups can bring together communities, agencies, and partners to address water quality resources through watershed monitoring and improvements. Local planning and development practices can ensure that redevelopment improves water quality and that new development not only minimizes impacts but also enhances natural resources with the right approach, standards, and design. Infrastructure decisions in particular can have lasting effects on the sustainable management of water systems, as described in greater detail below and in the other two water related strategies. Updating federal programs is a long-term goal, but the region and state can take more immediate actions to improve coordination and decision making that reflect the interconnected nature of water resources. The ON TO 2050 Water Resources strategy paper includes more details about the challenges to our water resources and how to address them.[3]


[GRAPHIC TO COME: A Watershed integrity Local Strategy Map interactive feature will illustrate percent impervious surface by catchment, which is one of many indicators that can be used to assess the quality of aquatic resources. It will highlight policy recommendations for areas with high imperviousness emphasize green infrastructure retrofits and waterway restoration that improves habitat.]


The following subsection describes strategies and actions to implement this recommendation.

Improve water resource management and coordination

Institutional barriers, from the separation of different policy sectors to disconnected decision making across jurisdictions, hinder the region’s ability to sustainably manage water resources. As a result, water resources are often managed in isolation, missing opportunities for more cost-effective, integrated solutions.  At the local level, many communities have separate entities managing water supply, stormwater, and wastewater, each with its own governance structure and mission, with limited connection to land use and transportation planning functions. Additional details about shared services and intergovernmental coordination are in the Governance chapter.


There are many ways to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and coordination of efforts related to flood mitigation, wastewater, water quality, water supply, and aquatic habitats. Better data collection and analysis regarding the condition of our water resources are an important foundation for integrated water resource management and performance-based decision making based on scientific evidence. Updating federal programs is a long-term goal, but the region and state can take more immediate actions to improve coordination and decision making. State and local agencies are seeking such opportunities, including cross-jurisdictional efforts to advance the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous 45 percent by 2015, and new approaches to finance stormwater management projects, including updates to the State Revolving Fund. A comprehensive water planning agenda and funding program at the state level could improve coordination of water resource management efforts.


The State should develop a comprehensive water planning agenda and increase funding levels to fully support programs that integrate water supply, water quality, stormwater, and aquatic habitat objectives.

The State should support and coordinate data collection, tracking, and research among various agencies, including the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS), Illinois State Water Survey (ISGS), Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), watershed working groups, and other watershed organizations.

IDNR and IEPA, in partnership with more local and regional organizations, should increase the number of streams surveyed and rated, and work with partners to develop a region-wide index for assessing the quality of headwater streams.

IDNR and IEPA should provide funding for CMAP to prepare an integrated water resource management plan for the region, addressing water quality, water supply, and stormwater management, including a focus on natural areas and green infrastructure, and providing a framework for enhancing coordination and establishing priorities for the region.

CMAP and partners should coordinate a cross-jurisdictional platform to engage local governments, conservation organizations, and community water resource managers to advance integrated, innovative, and watershed-based management across sectors and agencies.[4]

CMAP and partners should explore the use of transfers, credits, and water quality and volume trading programs to achieve regional water resource goals.

Local watershed entities should collaborate to ensure that efforts are solving priority watershed challenges and not working at cross-purposes.

The U.S. EPA and federal partners should advance stormwater management reform to better address non-point source pollution and flooding (see Reduce flood risk to protect people and assets recommendation.)

Incorporate water resource management into local planning

As the primary land use and development authorities in the region, municipalities and counties have significant responsibility to integrate water resource management considerations into planning efforts. The region can accommodate new households and jobs while protecting and enhancing water resources with a variety of best management techniques. Existing natural areas, open spaces, headwaters, high priority lakes and streams, and riparian zones can be protected through land use planning and land acquisition. To maintain and improve water resources, new development should protect natural drainage and hydrology, minimize the impact of impervious surfaces, and provide natural buffers along waterways and waterbodies. At the site-scale, county and municipal development ordinances can encourage or require the use of green infrastructure practices to minimize the impact of impervious surfaces, improve the quality, and reduce the volume of stormwater runoff. Infill and reinvestment in existing developed areas can actually improve water management in older neighborhoods by triggering the installation of stormwater best management practices (see the Improve natural resources through the redevelopment process recommendation.)

Local governments should identify and protect water resources -- and the water protective services provided by natural areas, riparian buffers, wetlands, and open space -- through the use of practices that avoid or minimize the expansion of impervious areas and that encourage infill, compact, and contiguous development.

Local governments and other land management entities should prioritize land acquisition and stewardship to maintain and enhance high priority water resources.

Local governments should integrate watershed plan recommendations and other water quality improvements into development ordinances.

Local governments should continue to update stormwater management plans and ordinances to reflect best practices and performance standards for protecting and enhance water resources.

CMAP should continue to integrate water resource management considerations into LTA projects.

CMAP, local governments, and transportation agencies should evaluate the direct and indirect water resource impacts of regionally significant transportation projects and the development they induce, requiring the use of practices that enhance rather than negatively impact water resources.

Local governments should recognize and plan for greater access for recreational uses on waterways and adjacent land.

Create and implement multi-objective watershed plans

Improving the quality of our water resources requires a comprehensive approach to easing the stresses imposed by stormwater runoff, combined sewer overflows, wastewater and industrial discharges. While watershed plans are an important mechanism for addressing water quality concerns, they typically lack the authority and funding to achieve significant water quality improvement. To date, the most successfully implemented watershed plans are the result of committed watershed groups that include municipal, county, state, and industry leaders collaborating on broad activities to advance water quality and other watershed goals. The DuPage River Salt Creek Working Group and the Fox River Study Group are models that should be extended throughout the region to invest in watershed restoration that addresses water quality concerns  Also, multiple objectives including open space protection, flood control, high-priority pollutants (chlorides and nutrients), and water supply protection can be addressed through watershed planning, and some of the region’s entities are already doing so, including implementation of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. Plan implementation requires a number of actions by watershed stakeholders, including open space protection, changes in development and transportation design, gray and green infrastructure investments, and operational changes to asset management practices.


CMAP, IEPA, stormwater and wastewater managers, and watershed management entities should engage a diverse set of stakeholders in workgroups to plan and implement priority projects that best achieve the goals of watershed plans.

CMAP, watershed organizations, IEPA, and other partners should continue to advance the state of watershed planning science and to develop and help implement watershed plans in the region using the watershed work group approach as one successful model.

CMAP and partners should explore funding and financing strategies to support collaborative efforts -- such as the State Revolving Fund and the use of transfers, credits, and water quality and volume trading programs -- to achieve regional water resource goals.

Wastewater managers, stormwater managers, conservation organizations, and local governments should focus efforts on addressing high-priority pollutants through watershed planning and implementation: nutrients, chlorides, sediment, and emerging pollutants such as pharmaceuticals.

Optimize water infrastructure investment

The region’s aging water infrastructure systems -- including drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater -- are in need of significant investment and modernization. Resource managers should consider an integrated water resource management framework that protects, conserves, and reuses water resources. Likewise, an integrated approach can help guide public and private investment to achieve multiple benefits, plan for appropriate growth, leverage multiple funding sources, and improve resilience. Some water managers, such as MWRD, recognize wastewater as a resource, making significant investments to recover nutrients and biosolids from waste streams, direct treated wastewater back into circulation for other uses, and capture excess heat and natural gas as a source of energy. Across the U.S., communities and industries are identifying uses of rainwater and graywater that can reduce both demands on drinking water and volumes of stormwater and wastewater.


In this era of limited resources, infrastructure investment must be strategic, multi-objective, performance-based, and connected to sound planning that upgrades, rehabilitates, and optimizes the use of existing system capacity. Reinvestment in existing infrastructure before expanding these systems is essential to reduce maintenance and replacement costs over the long term, and to create incentives for infill development that helps capture infrastructure costs. When expansion is considered, long-term asset management and maintenance costs should inform decision making, as described in the Incorporate market and fiscal feasibility into planning and development process recommendation of the Community chapter. In some cases, the best approach for managing the region’s infrastructure systems is to identify collaborative strategies for optimizing investments and efficiencies, including consolidation and service sharing arrangements.


The infrastructure and service recommendations of this Environment chapter and the Governance chapter include a number of crossover strategies. For example, Encourage partnerships and consolidation, Coordinate infrastucture operations and maintenance, and Develop tax policies that strengthen communities and the region.


The State, local governments, utilities, and water management entities should pursue resource recovery and closed loop systems (use, capture, recovery, and reuse) for water assets, including updating codes and standards to efficiently use clean water and ensure adequate water flow in the region’s rivers and streams.

Wastewater managers should continue to explore the use of constructed wetlands and land application to help treat and manage wastewater.

The State should continue to improve the Illinois Clean Water Initiative program criteria and incorporate flexible approaches to achieve water supply, water quality, and stormwater management goals and to better support high need, low resource communities.

The State, CMAP, and local governments should connect infrastructure investments with sound planning, consider long-term asset management and maintenance costs of infrastructure expansion, and prioritize use of infrastructure funds to upgrade, rehabilitate, and optimize the use of existing system capacity before investing in expansion.

CMAP and the IEPA should explore innovative wastewater planning approaches that protect water quality and satisfy other regional planning goals.

CMAP, local governments, and watershed groups should consider the protection of water resources when making wastewater service planning and infrastructure investment decisions, including separation of combined sewers and strategies to reduce frequency of overflows.

Local governments and other utility service providers should consider shared services, consolidation of local services, and other efficiency strategies in investment decisions to improve community fiscal health and resilience.

Address the unique challenges of Lake Michigan and its tributaries

Lake Michigan and its interconnected system of lakes and tributaries -- the most significant water resources in our region -- face unique challenges. Our location on the Lake Michigan shoreline demands collective action to maintain and enhance the health of our region's main water source and help the state meets its commitments to national and international partners. IDNR should continue to strategically manage the Lake, which currently endures significant pollution from urban, agricultural, and industrial sources. Strategies for addressing these challenges include improving stormwater management, reducing combined sewer overflows, cleaning up polluted lands and harbors, and better managing industrial discharges to the Lake and its tributaries. Our state's nearshore and shoreline habitat exists entirely within the Chicago metropolitan region[5] and is degraded, fragmented, and affected by dynamic lake levels and a changing shoreline, which can affect infrastructure, shipping, property, recreational resources, and sensitive ecosystems. Preventing the introduction of additional aquatic invasive species, which have already affected the Lake’s natural ecology and native species dynamics, should be a high priority. The region should be engaged in solutions that help protect the Great Lakes from Asian Carp and other such species while also maintaining the services currently provided by the Chicago Area Waterway System: the Chicago and Calumet Rivers, and the North Shore, Cal-Sag, and Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canals. The "Our Great Rivers" initiative is intended to focus attention and investment on improving these legacy resources, and the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study focused on the interaction between these water systems, should be implemented.[6]


CMAP, USACE, IDNR, MWRD, MPC, CCT, and other stakeholders should continue to explore solutions to manage, enhance, and provide access to the Chicago Area Waterways System.[7]

Congress should continue to fund investments that maintain the health, recreational use, and economic benefits of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes, such as the Great Lake Restoration Initiative, the Coastal Zone Management program, the Water Resources Development Act,[8] and efforts to prevent invasive species transfer.

CMAP, IDNR Coastal Management Program, Chicago, and coastal communities and landowners should increase efforts to focus and coordinate high-priority coastal issues, such as protecting shorelines and coastal infrastructure, supporting resource-compatible recreational activities and access to Lake Michigan, and restoring natural resources.

IDNR, Chicago and other local governments, and coastal landowners should work together to protect and restore coastal nearshore and shoreline aquatic and terrestrial habitat, ravines, and migratory flyways.

CMAP should work with regional partners to implement or incorporate the Lake Michigan Lakewide Management Plan update into local planning efforts.

Lake County stormwater managers, MWRD, and other wastewater managers should continue to reduce stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows into Lake Michigan and the region’s waterways.


[1] Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, Public Law 110-342, 122 Stat. 3739 110th Congress, October, 3, 2008.

[2] The Water Research Foundation defines integrated water resource management as “an integrated planning and implementation approach to managing finite water resources for long-term resilience and reliability, meeting both community and ecosystem needs (Paulson, Broley, and Stephens 2017, 2), while the Water Environment and Reuse Foundation suggests the approach “considers the urban water cycle as a single integrated system, in which all urban water flows are recognized as potential resources, and the interconnectedness of water supply, groundwater, stormwater and wastewater is optimized, and their combined impact on flooding, water quality, wetlands, watercourses, estuaries and coastal waters is recognized” (Howe and Mukheibir 2015, 3.)

[3] CMAP ON TO 2050 Strategy Paper, “Water Resources Strategy Paper” (2017),

[4] American Planning Association. 2016. “American Planning Association Policy Guide on Water.”

[5] The Chiwaukee Illinois Beach Lake Plain, the coastline from Kenosha to Waukegan Harbor, has been designated as a wetland system of international importance () by RAMSAR, the Convention on Wetlands intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. Ramsar Sites Information Service. 2015.

[6] Great Chicago Rivers. 2018. “Great Rivers Chicago.”

[7] United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2017. “Chicago Area Waterway System / Chicago River.”

[8] Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. n.d. “Great Lakes Restoration.” Accessed May 30, 2018. NOAA Office for Coastal Management. 2016. “The National Coastal Zone Management Program.”; National Wildlife Federation. n.d. “Water Resources Development Act.” Accessed May 30, 2018.

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