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Our view: Doubts about towns’ water plans

Updated: February 21, 2013 6:44AM



A major benefit of residing in the Chicago region, one often taken for granted in the past, is the plentiful supply of high-quality Lake Michigan water for homes and businesses. But these days, hardly anyone is taking water for granted.

That’s because lake water, which is more expensive than well water, is getting even more costly — to the point where some suburbs are looking at alternatives, including forming water agencies, to try to save money.

We acknowledge the political heat that municipal officials are under as water rates rise sharply, but we’re uneasy about them trying to operate their own water systems. Doing so involves great cost and substantial risk — taking on high levels of debt to build or acquire water lines and pumping stations and operate them.

An official of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources warns that creating a new water distribution system is “extraordinarily difficult” because of the financial, legal and technical challenges involved. But several towns in South Cook and Will counties are not being deterred.

Seven towns have formed the South Suburban Joint Area Water Agency to explore getting lake water from Whiting, Ind., rather than Chicago via a new pipeline. Five others belong to the Northern Will County Water Agency, which plans to take over the water system of a private utility that town officials believe has gouged their residents for many years. Many other municipalities are chafing at the higher cost of water but see no alternative to Chicago.

Driving the unrest is Chicago’s decision to nearly double its lake water rate over four years, through 2015, to cover the cost of a massive project to improve its aging water delivery system. The 12 towns that get lake water from Chicago via Oak Lawn face added costs because of Oak Lawn’s plan to upgrade and expand its water system over four years.

With more suburbs going deeper into debt, using their home-rule power or a special kind of bond to avoid borrowing limits, towns need to be very careful about pursuing major water projects. Will towns really save significant money long-term? We’re not sure, but they better be.



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