Regional pact reflects importance of lake water
By Susan DeMar Lafferty firstname.lastname@example.org December 20, 2013 10:06PM
Oak Lawn Water Department plans to build a permanent generator at the Elmore J. Harker Pumping Station, Thursday, December 5th, 2013, in Oak Lawn. | Gary Middendorf~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 23, 2014 6:03AM
Legislators in Springfield and Washington, D.C., could learn a lesson or two from Southland leaders, who were able to put aside their egos and self-interest to agree on a $171 million regional water improvement project.
Four years of negotiations involving six diverse towns has produced a 40-year agreement that will ensure an adequate supply and reliable delivery of Lake Michigan water for future generations in Oak Lawn, Oak Forest, Orland Park, Tinley Park, Mokena and New Lenox, according to municipal officials.
“This is historically significant. This is a project that really has lessons to be learned about intergovernmental cooperation,” Oak Lawn village manager Larry Deetjen said of the agreement. “The fact that all boards voted unanimously speaks volumes for the quality of leadership. They know that water is an essential resource.”
While other towns that use lake water are trying to find cheaper alternatives to Chicago’s rising water rates, Oak Lawn and its customers said they realize the value of Chicago’s water system and want to improve their part of it.
Deetjen said 90 percent of the cost of lake water is determined by Chicago, which is imposing a series of large rate increases to pay for major improvements to its water filtration and distribution systems. The rate hikes are 25 percent on Jan. 1, 2012, and 15 percent on Jan. 1 in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
“Rates are rising because we get a quality product. Chicago has one of the finest water treatment facilities and it has to upgrade its system,” Deetjen said.
Oak Lawn also must upgrade its 40-year-old system that delivers the water to 11 suburbs from Chicago Ridge to New Lenox.
Oak Lawn initially reached a 40-year deal with Chicago for improvements that will double the village’s water supply system from 55 million gallons per day to 110 million.
Rather than negotiate individually with Oak Lawn on higher water rates, leaders in Oak Forest, Orland Park, Tinley Park, Mokena and New Lenox, which account for 80 percent of Oak Lawn’s water distribution, united to provide a stronger voice and achieve a regional agreement with Oak Lawn.
With their contracts with Oak Lawn expiring in 2011, the five towns began negotiations in 2009, collectively hiring legal and engineering consultants to assist them.
Bill Balling, who served 20 years on the Northwest Water Commission in Des Plaines and now operates a management consulting firm, said the mayors and managers of the five towns “had an amazing ability to work cooperatively. Personalities were checked at the door.”
“It was important for the five of us to be rowing in the same direction. We are all served off the same branch, the same line,” Tinley Park village manager Scott Niehaus said.
“We are not islands. We are all in this together. Any one demand puts demand on the whole system,” Mokena village administrator John Downs said. “We needed to look forward and think about future generations and provide infrastructure for them.
“We have a lot invested in this (Oak Lawn) system. It would be easy to keep on the existing path. It was more difficult to look ahead and address immediate needs and long-term situations,” Downs said.
To prevent disruptions in service, Oak Lawn’s improvement project will install another 60-inch water line. It will run along Southwest Highway through Palos Hills and Palos Park and along ComEd and Cook County Forest Preserve District rights-of-way to Orland Park, where it will loop into the existing 48-inch water line.
The Harker pumping station in Oak Lawn, the system’s main station, will get a permanent, emergency backup power source, with improved technology to detect problems before there are breaks in the line. And for the first time, all users will pay into reserve funds to cover future repairs and operating costs.
The toughest part of the negotiations was figuring out each town’s proportionate share of the costs. Besides the level of water usage, the complex formula factors in distance from Oak Lawn, electrical cost and a town’s future growth.
Another key was allowing Oak Lawn to continue to own and operate the system, while giving its customers a greater voice in financial and administrative decisions.
Balling said he was pleased with the outcome, which for the first time acknowledges that Oak Lawn is not only the supplier but also a customer.
“Oak Lawn knows it has good customers who are willing to pay for improvements. But for that kind of money, they (other towns) needed to have some input on the budget and system enhancements,” he said. “I applaud Oak Lawn for accepting the fact that their customers count. Chicago did not offer that to Oak Lawn.”
With support from area congressmen and state legislators, Oak Lawn secured a $102 million low-interest loan from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to pay for most the system improvements and will be reimbursed by its customers over the 40-year period.
And yes, all this means that water rates will increase to pay for the project.
“It’s still a bargain,” Orland Park village manager Paul Grimes said. “No one volunteers to increase the water rates. But increases are needed to ensure a reliable supply. You have to keep a perspective on this. When you look around the world, a plentiful supply for high-quality water is hard to come by.”
Among the 12 users in this regional system, Orland Park will pay the most for the project — 22.5 percent, with Tinley Park chipping in 20.4 percent, New Lenox 11.6 percent, Oak Lawn 9.9 percent, Mokena 6.8 percent and Oak Forest 6.6 percent.
A lot has changed since Tinley Park first obtained lake water from Oak Lawn in 1973, Niehaus said.
“Our relationship with Oak Lawn has been very parental. We wanted to be more of a partner,” he said. “We want to see where our water is going.”
Tinley Park previously worked with Mokena and New Lenox when those communities teamed up to tap into Oak Lawn’s delivery system. But this time, “the complexity and the number of communities involved made it more interesting,” New Lenox village administrator Kurt Carroll said. “Everyone had to put their egos on the hook and look at the greater good that was being served. We got to know each other quite well.”
“It took awhile, but we were always confident we would reach an agreement,” Grimes said. “We learned from Oak Lawn, and they learned from us. We have graduated from a hodgepodge of individuals sucking on the same straw to a regional system.
“This is a case study in how things should work. You have to have a common vision. Our mayors all recognized that vision— to ensure water capacity and reliability. They always supported the long view.”
Officially, the regional agreement is not finalized until Chicago Ridge, Palos Hills and Palos Park sign on, which is expected this spring. Their water contracts with Oak Lawn also have expired, continuing for now under the previous terms.
Deetjen said he has met with officials of the three towns and kept them abreast of developments. He said he’s confident there will be solid support for the regional pact.
The contracts for Country Club Hills, Matteson and Olympia Fields expire in 2016, but Deetjen hopes to get them on board before then.
“These unanimous votes (by the five other towns) will show them there is strong support for this project,” he said.