By Jack Wittman, WHPA Inc. president I want to clarify my opinions on the proposed Kishwaukee Valley Water Authority. A recent article published in one of the local papers described the educational forum that was held recently by the County Planning and Zoning Committee to learn more about the technical issues and to hear the opposing arguments. It was an impressive show of public discourse that should make the voters of DeKalb County proud of their government. In that meeting there was an opportunity to consider the problem of water supply (for the first time) in a way that reflects how important it is to the future of the regional economy. At the public meeting we heard, on the one hand, that water authority proponents believe that a multi-county water authority would have the "weight" to get federal funding to do studies and to protect the water supply. On the other hand is a group that is primarily concerned about the future economy of the region and they see this proposal as a serious attempt to take water rights away from the land owner. What are the facts and what are the questions before the public?
Water Rights If voters choose to become a part of the water authority they are voting to cede their water rights. This seems, in principle, a patently bad idea. Why should DeKalb County, or any county in this area give up authority for water supplies that are in fact the county's natural resource. As a citizen member on my county drainage board, I know that counties are being asked to become more responsible for water quality. Counties are the smallest unit of government that includes both rural and urban areas. If the county were to petition to become its own water authority the lines of authority and responsibility would be clear. This is what is needed to make a water authority work as a water manager - balance, equity, leadership and the legitimacy gained by understandable elections. Power in our country should always be based in popular will especially on anything as important as water supplies.
Fairness Every voter should understand that within the boundaries of any water authority all water use is not treated the same. A water authority in Illinois cannot require information from any agricultural water user. In Boone County much of the future growth in water demand is anticipated to be for irrigated agriculture. This pumping cannot be regulated, is not subject to restriction by the authority even if this use causes neighboring shortages. And, unlike municipal or industrial water wells, a water authority cannot assess any fee when a new agricultural well is drilled. Fees are now assessed on public drinking water wells by water authorities. Recently a water authority in downstate Illinois requested a $30,000 fee for a city to replace their well. The irony is that the well needed to be replaced because it had become polluted with agricultural chemicals from neighboring agricultural land. Is this fair?
Fighting or Fixing I have a very interesting job. My company works with communities that are trying to figure out how to satisfy demands while they protect their lifeline of water. The conversation has a different ring to it when the community is facing a serious supply crisis. In southwestern Missouri the community water supply includes both surface water and groundwater but - like most of northeastern Illinois - most communities primarily depend on a deep bedrock aquifer. Water use is growing with the population and the local communities had never talked to each other about their own water use. One group wanted to see if the supply was sufficient so we were hired to assess the growth in water use and the potential limitations on aquifer yield. While this story is complicated by local detail, the conclusion is simple: The only way water users could address their combined problem was by acting together. The only way they could hurt themselves was by acting exclusively in their own self-interest without regard to their neighbors. The northeastern Illinois regional water supply planning group was formed, like the regional group in Missouri, to deal with the regional problem. It is my opinion that the proposed Kishwaukee Valley Water Authority is a certain formula for a jurisdictional fights that will continue for the next 50 years. With the possibilities of drought and the certainties of regional growth, DeKalb County should dodge the fight and deal with the problem. The way to gets things done is to roll up your sleeves and figure it out. Simple, straight, common sense.
Can a Multi-County Water Authority Work? This would be the largest water authority in the state and consequently there are several new public policy problems that need to be resolved given the proposed three-county boundaries. For the first time a water authority would have "constituent counties." In this configuration, the water authority has a trustee relationship to the county. The nature of this relationship is not specified in the statute. In other areas of the state water authorities work within the larger counties and represent fairly uniform agricultural interests. These water authorities work. They represent a distinct and important perspective that is needed in regional water supply planning. Without any record of cooperation or tests of their respective legal authority between a larger water authority and a constituent county it is not possible to anticipate the how this group would coordinate on local planning, data collection, and resource development. The principle of home rule suggests that this authority should be with a more local government - the county - and, if this were available as an option, there would be adequate funding for hydrologic investigations, data collection and regional groundwater modeling for the county. Multiple-county water authorities may work but I wonder how many voters in the county actually want another layer of government? Most people think we have enough government but we need more control. The proposed water authority would add a layer of government and hand that new government all control over non-agricultural water use.
The Money It seems an obvious question - Who gets the money that goes to a water authority? What is it used for? How much is too much to pay for a new well? How much do they need to know to do the job of responsible water supply management? If the money is simply going to the state or federal government for studies, it seems that the county would need staff that could understand how to integrate the knowledge gained in these investigations to inform land use, transportation, and comprehensive planning decisions. If the work is just passing through to the state or federal research agencies and then needs to be digested and used in county governance - is there a reason for the larger multiple-county agency? It is good to ask, "What can a water authority do better than the county?" Who should have the money, the power and the responsibility?
How to Proceed Regionally there is a water supply problem. Water use from Milwaukee to Gary has caused groundwater levels in the deep aquifers to fall by more than 700 feet since development. According to recent work by the Illinois State Water Survey, the deep bedrock aquifer is being overused. At the same time, shallow aquifer supplies appear to exceed demands in DeKalb County. Regardless of the outcome at the polls, none of these facts change. This ballot forces voters to decide how their area will deal with the regional problem of water supplies and water resource planning and consider problems of local water supplies and local control. Right now, DeKalb County is represented on the Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Supply Planning group and that group is working to estimate future demands in the area while estimating the dimensions of the resource by modeling and analysis. The work of this and the other regional planning group will be used to make recommendations about water supply planning for the state of Illinois. These problems always need to be looked straight in the eye. Over the course of the next 50 years water rights are only going to become more valuable. It would be irresponsible for DeKalb County voters to hand this priceless resource over to an untested organization and then collectively cross your fingers hoping for the best.