Water: Our Most Precious Resource

Given all the rain we’ve had this year, water may feel like an abundant resource, but don’t be deceived. These conservationists, urban planners and policymakers are determined to keep our water clean and flowing for generations to come.

It may feel like an abundant natural resource, but the water we rely on for modern life is astonishingly limited – and we all can play a role in protecting it. (Brad Nordlof photo)

It’s hard to imagine running out of water in northern Illinois, where residents are flanked by Lake Michigan and countless other bodies of water.

Lake County alone is home to 170 lakes and rivers, plus 400 miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands, according to the county website.

But consider this: though 75 percent of Earth’s surface is made up of water, 97.5 percent of it is saltwater ocean, according to the United Nations. The remaining 2.5 percent is fresh water. And of that 2.5 percent, 70 percent currently is ice.

A mere 1 percent of Earth’s fresh water is clean and accessible, and globally 69 percent of it is used for agriculture; roughly 19 percent is used by industry. That leaves 12 percent available for domestic use.

That’s right. Less than 1 percent of all the water on Earth is available for drinking, showering, washing clothes, flushing toilets, and all of the other uses our modern life demands.

It’s a staggering fact, and one Scott Kuykendall leads with when talking about water resources in McHenry County.

“We really don’t appreciate what we have, and historically human beings have not been great stewards of our water resources,” says Kuykendall, a water resources specialist for the McHenry County Department of Planning and Development. “We have something pretty special here, and it deserves to be treated with respect. And if we do treat it with respect, it is a resource that can provide for our community for years to come. But it is vulnerable.”

Sourcing Our Water

To understand why water is such a precious resource, you first need to know where your water originates.

McHenry County sources its drinking water from three types of underground aquifers – saturated areas that can hold or transport water.

Shallow sand and gravel aquifers stretch from the surface to 300 feet below ground and make up about 75 percent of the county’s water usage, says Kuykendall.

“When it rains and snow melts, water can infiltrate down through the sand and gravel, reach an impermeable layer, then create a water table,” he says. “We can drill wells below the water table to draw our water.”

Shallow bedrock aquifers, consisting of layers of limestone below the sand and gravel, are the smallest of the aquifers tapped by McHenry County.
Deep bedrock aquifers that can reach down approximately 1,200 feet are comprised of layers of sandstone and are capable of holding large amounts of water. These aquifers underly vast areas, with many different counties and cities drawing from the same source.

McHenry County taps into two deep aquifers, but it has maxed out the amount of water it can sustainably draw from them, pumping approximately 8 million gallons of water a day, says Kuykendall.

“We will need to rely on the shallow sand and gravel aquifers to meet any future growth in the county,” he says.

Most Lake County communities – primarily those on the eastern border – receive their water from Lake Michigan.

But for the 38,000 people who live in the greater Barrington area – specifically those under the umbrella of the Barrington Area Council of Governments (BACOG), a voluntary planning organization that, among other things, works to protect access to a clean, sustainable water supply – their water comes from shallow aquifers, just like McHenry County.

Kane County water comes equally from deep and shallow aquifers, except for Aurora and Elgin – cities with a combined population of more than 300,000.

Fully 94 percent of Elgin’s water is sourced from the Fox River, according to the city’s website. The rest comes from deep wells.

Aurora utilizes a combination of well water and Fox River water, at a roughly 40/60 percent ratio, according to the city’s website.

Threats to Our Water

With all these water sources, where’s the crisis?

“We currently don’t see a problem,” says Janet Agnoletti, executive director of BACOG. “But ‘currently’ is the operative word there.”

There are always two things at risk when talking about water resources, she adds: groundwater quality and groundwater supply.

Currently, there are few quality problems in the BACOG area, which encompasses nine local governments: Tower Lakes, North Barrington, Lake Barrington, Barrington, Barrington Hills, South Barrington, Deer Park, Cuba Township and Barrington Township.

Though the area does have hard water, meaning calcium and magnesium counts are high, water softeners easily filter them out.

“In terms of other chemical components in the shallow aquifers, our water really is very good,” says Agnoletti.

McHenry and Kane counties also have good, safe drinking water. But there’s one major worry on the horizon.

“We put an awful lot of salt on our roadways,” Kuykendall says.

“Additionally, any paved surfaces including parking lots, driveways or sidewalks are likely getting salt. And a lot of the salt we put down is excessive, coming at great economic and environmental cost but providing absolutely no benefit.”

The problem with salt is that it’s highly soluble, says Kuykendall. Once it’s in water, it can’t be removed. It ultimately travels straight into lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands and ground waters.

Our supply of groundwater is currently sustainable, but that also could change.

Because the shallow aquifer system is so near the surface, its recharge, or replenishment, comes directly from rain and snow melt seeping in from above, says Agnoletti.

“People think their well water and their aquifers are replenished from Lake Superior,” says Agnoletti. “While that may be true of the deep aquifers, that is not the case in our 7,800-plus shallow aquifer private wells.”

If there’s a drought, or if urban growth leads to overconsumption, there could be a swift impact on water levels.

In 2009, the Illinois State Water Survey did a research report for Kane County that showed a significant drop in projected water levels through 2049 – and also included a significant drop for the BACOG area, Agnoletti says.

What does that mean to homeowners? Of the 38,000 people living in BACOG, roughly 12,000 to 13,000 receive water from their municipality, Agnoletti says. The rest of the population has private wells.

If water levels drop up to 10 feet in a well, homeowners usually can lower their pump to continue accessing water. But if water levels fall farther than a pump can be dropped, the well would need to be drilled deeper.

“It costs a lot of money to do that,” Agnoletti says. “If you still can’t get water, or it isn’t a good pocket of aquifer, you might have to look for a new location and drill.”

And that presents still other issues. The Village of Barrington Hills, for example, has no piped water distribution system.

“With potential dropping water levels, there’s a financial impact on residents and on municipalities, and if your house doesn’t have water, you don’t have much of a property value,” Agnoletti says. “This is why BACOG has created a monitoring program to identify trends in water levels in the shallow aquifer system. It will serve as a radar for any emerging problems in the water supply.”

The Other Problem

Why are computer models predicting aquifer depletions and water experts scrambling for solutions when no problem exists?

If you’ve noticed more flooding in your neighborhoods in recent years, that’s one sign things are not as they should be.

Dan Lobbes, director of land preservation and the Kane County program director of The Conservation Foundation, focuses on protecting and restoring natural areas in Kane, DuPage, Kendall and Will counties.

“We’re not replenishing those aquifers the way they used to be,” he says. “That’s because we have paved over, we have built over, we have made impermeable the ground that used to absorb and send water down into the aquifers. So, now when it rains we have all this water coming off our roads, and it’s sent into a creek, into a river, and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico, instead of going into those aquifers.”

Not only is water running into creeks and rivers but more pollution, too.
River quality has vastly improved the past 30 years, as industrial waste is by and large a problem of the past, Lobbes says.

Today’s major source of pollutants is, ironically, stormwater.

“When it rains and the water runs off our roofs and parking lots and roads, it carries with it an awful lot of pollutants,” Lobbes says, noting road salt, engine oil, paint and unwanted household wastes are big culprits.

Very little of the water that flows into sewers gets filtered, so even natural things like leaves – which are high in phosphorus – can end up being pollutants.

“When you buy fertilizer, one major ingredient is phosphorus, a kind of nutrient,” Lobbes says. “In low numbers, it can be fine in our gardens, in our lawns. But when it rains, 90 percent of the fertilizers we put on our lawns washes away. When you get that much nutrient in the river, it causes algae blooms. They’re a nuisance, they smell, they look bad and they take oxygen out of the river. So, our fish, our clams and mussels get starved for oxygen, and the health of our river goes down.”

What Can We Do?

Conservation groups are taking a leading role in protecting the region’s water supply and educating the public.

One of the newest regional projects is a restoration demonstration area along Flint Creek in Barrington’s Pederson Preserve. A $5,000 grant from the Barrington Area Community Foundation will help the Flint Creek/Spring Creek Watersheds Partnership, Barrington Area Conservation Trust and Citizens for Conservation collaborate not only on the restoration area, but on educational activities and materials such as native planting instructions, sample planting designs, how-to libraries and more. These will become available to ordinary citizens through the groups’ websites.

“We all have a limited supply of water to draw from, so we want to make sure that it stays healthy and is replenished properly,” says Kathleen Leitner, president of Citizens For Conservation.

The best starting point is planting native species, she says.

“Not only do they attract birds, bees and pollinators that help pollinate all of our plants, but they also have very deep root systems,” she says. “The roots are sometimes twice the size of the plant itself, and they also clean the water and purify the water for the aquifer.”

Cities and municipalities have upped their water protection efforts as well.
McHenry County has trained more than 900 people in sensible salting practices, so that only the minimum amount of roadway salt is used.

One strategy includes applying liquid brine before a storm. The mixture – comprised of beet juice or other carbohydrates that help the brine stick to the pavement and let the mixture work at lower temperatures – prevents ice from forming, making it easier for plows to clear paved surfaces more quickly.

“Ultimately, roads are safer and less road salt is used, since repeated applications of salt are not needed to break up ice,” says Kuykendall.
The Fox Valley Park District has reduced salt usage by 40 percent, Lobbes says.

“Their salt solution has beet juice in it,” he adds. “Crews can lay it down 48 hours before snow is expected.”

Communities including Aurora, Crystal Lake and Elgin have installed rain gardens, which are slightly depressed areas filled with native plants that filter and absorb stormwater, helping water soak into the ground and replenish aquifers.

Aurora, in particular, installed rain gardens on street corners that were slightly extended into the street, Lobbes says.

“The result has been traffic calming – it slows people down, and it also makes crossing that road easier because the crosswalks have been shortened,” Lobbes says. “So, they’ve reached a number of positives. And before they built them, they did a study on using more pipes or doing this green infrastructure. It turned out that the garden approach was half the cost of putting in the pipes and sewers.”

CFC’s Leitner, who lives in Tower Lakes, is amazed at how well a rain garden has solved a flooding problem in the village.

“We’ve had these crazy, heavy rains the past couple of years,” she says. “We installed a rain garden situated up a hill, on a street that used to flood for a week before it cleared. Now, the rain garden holds all the water. You’d have to see it to believe it. It’s incredible.”

What Can I Do?

There are many things homeowners can do to protect their water supply, says Susan Lenz, director of the Barrington Area Conservation Trust. Some are so easy, they may seem laughable.

Picking up pet waste can keep storm runoff cleaner.

“Pet waste can release ammonia into the water, and high ammonia is not good to lakes – it can kill fish,” says Lenz.

If you have a lawn service, ask your maintenance crew about using organic substances instead of pesticides that can wash into the water system.

Or, if you mow your own lawn, blow excess grass back into the yard, says Lobbes. It will act as a fertilizer, and it won’t pollute rivers and streams.

When you’re mowing, raise the blade to 3 inches, especially during the summer. It will help the grass soak up more water.

Before adding native plants to your property, have a plan in mind and then hit the local nursery.

“It used to be, whatever you planted ‘green’ was good. But not everything green is necessarily good,” says Lenz.

Buckthorn, for instance – an invasive, woody shrub/tree brought over from Eurasia – has overrun the area. In fact, more than 42 percent of the trees in Lake County are buckthorn, the highest percentage in the region, Lenz says.

“Buckthorn naturally poisons soil and water for developing frogs and salamanders, as well as many plants. It’s ruining our ecosystem,” Lenz says. “Homeowners look at it and say, ‘It’s great!’ It’s the first thing to leaf out in spring and the last thing to thin out in fall. But one of the things we’re trying to do is help homeowners get rid of invasive plants and plant native plants – native is key.”

Native plants require less maintenance and fertilizing, while also providing familiar food and habitats. They also help to clean the water, says Leitner. “People think about plants, but they’re not thinking about what the plants are doing, and what they’re doing is a really important function.”

If you live near a stream bank, native sedges – grass-like plants that have triangular stems – can soak up a lot of water. Try Great Bulrush and Common Woodland Sedge.

If you prefer “prettier” flowers, try some pollinator favorites like Cardinal flowers, Great Blue Lobelia and Blue Flag Iris.

If you have a larger yard, Sky Blue Asters – blue flowers with yellow centers – are a good choice. And you can’t beat native grasses, especially Prairie Dropseed for a front border, because it grows in clumps low to the ground.

Prairie Blazing Star has a stalk of tightly bunched lavender flowers.

Milkweed is always a good choice, as is Blue Flag Iris, Echinacea and Coreopsis.

If you have no idea what would work well in your yard, groups like BACT, Citizens For Conservation and the Land Conservancy of McHenry County have home programs that send a naturalist to your house and help design a native plant garden. BACT and TLC utilize a program called Conservation@Home, which was developed by The Conservation Foundation; CFC has a similar program called Habitat Corridors.