“Nor Any Drop to Drink”

0 Flares Filament.io 0 Flares ×

Nowhere is the “disconnect” of modern American life
more apparent than in our relationship with water. We all
know that water is necessary for life. We know that water
is a precious resource and that our future requires the
most careful and vigilant stewardship of our water supply.
And yet, walk in the kitchen, turn the faucet, water comes
out. It’s clean and safe: you can drink it! It’s the quintessential
American achievement.
We know that water pollution and water shortages exist;
they exist here in our country, in our state, and in our
county, but somehow this has no sustained impact on our
everyday reality. An occasional boil-order notwithstanding,
our experience encourages complacency. Illinois water-use
laws reflect this myopic view; based on ill-defined “reasonable
use” standards, the law offers little support for water
conservation or long-term protection of our water supply.
Turn the faucet! The water’s there waiting.
Would that it were true and true forever! Luckily,
Champaign-Urbana is currently in a very fortunate situation,
water-wise. Our water comes from the Mahomet
Aquifer and it is an abundant and nearly pristine source.
The aquifer, a 3700 square mile area of porous water-saturated
sand and gravel, held by bedrock on the bottom and
sides and topped by nearly watertight clay-rich glacial till,
spreads from north of Danville on the Illinois-Indiana border
to the southeastern corner of Tazewell County. Formed
by the retreat of Ice Age glaciers, it is currently serving up
drinking water that fell on earth between three and ten
thousand years ago.
An aquifer is a renewable resource. As part of the hydrologic
cycle, some water will return to the aquifer and
“recharge” it. However, we must think in geological time:
rain falling on Champaign County today will travel to the
aquifer at the rate of about one inch per year, completing its
recharge function in approximately three thousand years.
Remember, too, that human development affects this cycle:
converting prairie and forest to cropland and cities tends to
reduce the amount of water that makes it to the aquifer.
Ours is prize-winning water. Illinois American Water has
brought home “Best of the best” honors for two years running
from the American Water Works national taste test
competition. Recently, concerns have been raised over naturally
occurring arsenic in the water, but this is a minor
issue, for now, as this level of arsenic is easily dealt with at
the water treatment plant. A deep aquifer like the
Mahomet is not immune to outside contamination, but it
is fairly well protected from it. Pure, pleasant-tasting, and
plentiful – what’s to worry?
The drought of 2005 captured people’s attention. In
January 2006, the governor of Illinois issued an executive
order calling for the development of a comprehensive
statewide water supply planning and management strategy.
The two areas of the state identified as most at risk for
water shortages and conflicts were the Northeastern Illinois
Deep Aquifer and the Mahomet Aquifer. In 2007, in
response to the executive order, a three-year data-gathering
program was begun for our aquifer, with the goal of
producing a regional water supply plan to include scenarios
through 2050.
What puts the Mahomet Aquifer at risk? In the words
of Derek Winstanley, chief of the Illinois State Water Survey:
“Groundwater is a renewable resource, but not an
infinite resource… we are talking about finite limits, for all
purposes and for all times.” Pumping lowers the water
table. Over-pumping is the single greatest threat to the
continued viability of the Mahomet Aquifer.
Furthermore, while the growth potential for aquifer
use as a whole remains quite large, the Champaign-
Urbana area may already be approaching local yield
capacity. In addition, continued growth in withdrawals
from the same part of the aquifer will eventually result in
“dewatering”, a serious situation which could dramatically
compromise the quality of water in the aquifer. ISWS
data gathered so far suggests that we can withdraw an
additional 16 or 17 million gallons per day before we
begin to dewater the aquifer.
Is this enough? Population growth, climate change, continuing
urbanization, and the needs of agriculture and
manufacturing are among the factors that must be considered
when making water use decisions. Springfield,
Bloomington-Normal, Decatur and Danville currently rely
on surface water sources but are looking at the Mahomet
Aquifer as a possible alternative or back-up supply. Climate
change studies of Illinois suggest only that the future
is uncertain. More frequent or more severe droughts, with
a corresponding need for greater irrigation, are definitely
one possibility.
Water isn’t just necessary for life; it is a major component
in manufacturing. ITT (the telecommunications people)
recently reported that nearly 40% of their business is
now in “fluid technology,” supplying pumps and transport
systems to deliver water, primarily to factory floors. There
are 62,000 gallons in each ton of steel, 39,000 in the manufacture
of the average car, 3000 gallons in every single
And, as we all have been learning locally, it takes 3 to 8
gallons of water for every gallon of ethanol, which translates
into 1.9 million gallons per day for an ethanol plant
such as the one being developed by The Andersons for
northwest Champaign. The Andersons are not alone.
Ethanol plants are also under development in Royal, Tuscola
and throughout the state.
Whether or not biofuels are the answer to our energy
problems is a question outside the scope of this article.
Regardless, The Andersons plant plans to withdraw 1.9
million gallons per day of pristine aquifer water to use for
evaporative cooling. This would not have an immediate
effect on the quality of water in the Mahomet Aquifer. But
as well-reported by the News-Gazette, it most certainly
would have an effect on the quality of water in the
Kaskaskia River, the ultimate discharge site for the water.
The fates of our rivers and our groundwater are intertwined:
ultimately what affects the one, affects the other.
More important, in a world of “finite limits for all purposes
and for all times” is this the use we want for water
from the Mahomet Aquifer? The price of gasoline right
now gives us a tiny glimpse of what it really means to live
in a world of skyrocketing demand and scarce resources.
But this is water. You can’t opt out of your need for it by
walking to work instead. We already know that we need to
think ecologically – we need to think in terms of interconnections
and we need to think in terms of seventy times
seven generations. We need to think “for all purposes and
for all times.”
But wait! We, the citizens of Central Illinois, don’t get to
decide. If the Illinois EPA grants The Andersons their pollution
permit for wastewater discharge, they may proceed.
This ethanol plant, which could, in fact, be located anywhere,
will bring perhaps 35 jobs to the county and save
transport cost for those local farmers who own their own
semis and want to jump on the ethanol bandwagon. That’s
not much of a return for 1.9 million gallons per day of
“best of the best” water.
At the moment, we do not have a water supply plan for
the future. Under current “reasonable use” standards,
water rights come with property rights, unless challenged
in court. The courts listen to the competing claims of current
users; the future user has no voice. Perhaps it is time
to change their perspective. What the Mahomet Aquifer
may really need is a group of outraged citizens and a good

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.