“Chickens don’t mind if the water is a little on the interesting side,” said Alice Howenstine cheerfully as she submerged plastic jugs with hand-drawn pictures of chickens on them in a rain barrel under the gutter spout of her farmhouse in McHenry, Illinois. Alice and her husband Bill cover their rain barrels with recycled screens from their windows, but the water is still a bit murky and gritty. That doesn’t mean it should go to waste.
McHenry and surrounding communities depend on groundwater for all their municipal and residential needs, and as the population north of Chicago continues to grow – turning farmland into subdivisions – water is becoming an increasingly precious resource.
Things like collecting rain for watering animals and gardens can help. So can reducing runoff by sowing native plants, creating bio-swales and wetlands and reducing impermeable pavement. When water permeates into the soil instead of rushing over hard surfaces – like cement, blacktop, and roofs – into storm drains or ditches, it recharges the area’s strained aquifers.
Since McHenry County (which includes the town of McHenry) is outside the Great Lakes basin, a landmark treaty known as the Great Lakes Compact prevents it from using Lake Michigan water. McHenry gets 100% of its water from aquifers, with no other alternatives. It is one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, with a 2008 study projecting population increase from 304,000 in 2005 to 589,000 by 2050. Last fall, the county reported that groundwater shortages are expected in the next 10 to 20 years.
Residents within municipal areas get groundwater from municipal agencies, while people in unincorporated parts – like the Howenstines – rely on their own wells. County water use was projected to nearly double from 39 million gallons per day in 2005 to 67.5 million gallons per day in 2030.
The community has been preparing for the crisis for some years, establishing a Groundwater Protection Task Force, creating a Water Resources Action Plan, and finally issuing the first public draft of the McHenry County Unified Development Ordinance, or UDO, in September 2012. The UDO covers a variety of topics including water conservation.
According to Jessica Dexter, an attorney who has advocated for strong water conservation practices in the community, “The UDO includes many of the water conservation strategies that experts and members of the public have been asking for. If the McHenry County Board votes to adopt this set of policies, it will go a long way toward averting the county’s water shortage crisis.”
Dexter works for the non-profit Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) and is one of many stakeholders that participated in a public process leading up to the draft ordinance (available for public comment). According to Dexter, the draft includes two groundwater protection districts where additional review is required for development, conservation design is required for subdivisions where greater than 20% of the land area includes sensitive features, and limits on impervious surfaces are required to protect “recharge areas” – land that must remain undeveloped to allow rainwater to pass through to the aquifer. Dexter authored a series of reports about these and other techniques to protect groundwater ("Land Use Tools to Protect Groundwater").
On July 11, the county held a Drought Summit where officials and residents talked about how to conserve water and survive should the 2012 summer drought conditions continue. This year has been the sixth-driest on record for Illinois – bringing water levels down in both wells and the Fox River that runs through McHenry County.
During drought, aquifers are recharged less, yet water withdrawals typically increase as people struggle to water dying plants and otherwise deal with hot weather. At the Drought Summit, officials stressed that individuals must take responsibility for conserving water, especially since Illinois has few regulations on groundwater use.
Around these parts, the Howenstines are famous for doing their part. The couple moved to McHenry four decades ago after meeting as teenagers at summer camp in Ohio, a stint working in rural Peru and years in Chicago. They’ve always been concerned with ecology and conservation, transforming their 30 acres from traditional cornfields into an organic cut-your-own Christmas tree farm, plots of native wildflowers and a solar-powered guest house. Water conservation is engrained in their daily routine. When Alice lets the shower run to get warm each morning, she collects the water in buckets that are later tossed on the gardens. They have four rain barrels, which they set on a truck or golf cart to water the Christmas trees. They obtained a sturdy water tank from a neighbor in exchange for eggs. They recycle religiously, have never had air conditioning and dry their clothes on “solar driers” – lines strung between trees.
“We were born in the Depression, you just did these things as part of life,” said Alice matter-of-factly.
Their property now covered in native cherry, oak, hickory and black walnut trees – along with the Christmas pines – did not have a tree on it when they moved in. As the land reverted toward its original state, a shallow pond formed and became a stop-over for migrating geese.
“The more natural the land is, the less water you use,” said Bill, who was a professor of geography and environmental science for 35 years at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
The Howenstines turned land surrounding their home into conservation easements that can never be developed, a step in curbing the suburban sprawl that has greatly increased the demands on aquifers and also the amount of runoff in the region.
Sandy Sjoblom lives in one such suburban development, 18 miles south of the Howenstines in Algonquin, Ill. For every one inch of rainfall, she figures about 150,000 gallons of water run off the collective roofs of the 250-home subdivision. Most of that water makes its way into the streets and storm drains, eventually polluting the nearby Fox River instead of naturally flowing through the ground to recharge the aquifer.
So Sjoblom is doing her part to conserve and making her yard a lovely oasis to boot. She has planted her front and back yards with about 150 species of native prairie and forest plants, including royal catchfly, hoary vervain and the milkweed that monarch butterflies need to lay their eggs. Though there has not been a butterfly in sight for miles around her home, on even a sweltering August afternoon three monarchs flit around her garden.
Sjoblom notes that she rarely waters her native plants, but notes: “If I had what I call ‘frou-frou’ plants out here in the same numbers, I would be watering constantly.”
She collects water for her garden from a 75-gallon rain barrel and notes that the prairie plants’ deep (up to 20-foot) roots can reach moisture and stay healthy even in droughts like the one that has turned most of the neighboring lawns brown. The roots also break up and aerate the soil, making it hold water better and creating the rich fertile loam for which Illinois is famed. Sjoblom estimates that her smaller front yard garden alone soaks up 20,000 gallons of water a year, and the native plants don’t need compost or fertilizer to thrive.
Before the native plants, her basement would frequently flood during storms.
“The prairie plants made the soil so much more porous that the basement doesn’t flood, and this [nearby] tree gets so much better water from the soil,” said Sjoblom, a member of the Wildflower Preservation and Propagation Committee, which hosts an annual plant sale and mentors people who want to convert their own land or garden.
Native plants were also a focus of the festive display that the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County staged in a barn at the county fair the first week of August. In between scarfing corn dogs and lemonade or checking out prize livestock and tractors, fair visitors could learn about water conservation and other ecological practices from the Defenders. The group traces its roots to 1969, when residents came together to fight a planned freeway that threatened the Fox River watershed. Their county fair exhibit placed local water conservation tips in a larger context.
Long-time Defenders member Nancy Schietzelt said county residents seem increasingly aware of the water crisis they may face and the ways they can and must work together to address it. Various towns in the county have implemented strict prohibitions on lawn-watering, which residents have reportedly accepted with little complaint.
“People are really catching on to the idea that your lawn can go dormant for a while,” Schietzelt said. “McHenry needs to be concerned about water all the time. It’s always in our minds that the wells could go dry.”
The county and individual municipalities within it are also implementing green infrastructure that helps reduce runoff, recharge aquifers and generally restore a more natural hydrology. This means replacing impermeable pavement with rain gardens, retaining ponds, bio-swales and other things that catch and hold water.
“Before settlement, water got into streams through groundwater,” said Cindy Skrukrud, a county resident and clean water advocate for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club. “We need to revamp our built environment so rainwater soaks into the ground and feeds our streams and wetlands.”