McLean County Residents Fear Water Crisis | WGLT

McLean County Residents Fear Water Crisis

Feb 9, 2016

McLean County residents who receive their water from Lake Bloomington and Lake Evergreen believe they will likely face a water shortage as well as water quality issues within the next decade. They are split, however, on whether drilling for a new well, tapping into an existing aquifer, or constructing another surface reservoir similar to those two lakes is the solution.

Residents also say they don't want to pay more for their water to deal with any looming crisis.

Those are some of the findings of a new study called "Your Water, Your Future" that tracks public attitudes about water in the Lake Bloomington-Lake Evergreen watershed. Illinois State University sociologist Joan Brehm, who conducted the research, gave WGLT an exclusive first look at her findings.

Brehm said it isn't unusual for residents to desire more and better water, then balk at paying more in taxes and fees to upgrade their water systems.

"Economics drive a lot of this, and just like with taxes, people don't like to pay more money," Brehm said. "It's something I think we need to work on in terms of trying to increase the level of understanding of the role of water in our lives. It's not just something we get out of our taps. Farmers need it to grow our food. We need it for health."

Brehm said the recent discovery of dangerous levels of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan has raised public awareness about threats to the public water supply. Of the Flint example, Brehm said, "That could happen in any place. So investing in water and maintaining it for our future needs is money well spent."

Residents said they believe chemicals and toxins from farm runoff, such as nitrates and phosphates,  are the biggest threats to local water quality. But they had less awareness of how their own household practices are contributing to the problem.

"People don't necessarily think of individual lawn care as having an effect on our water," Brehm said. She said residents could help by using phosphorous-free fertilizers, or no fertilizers at all.

Residential water conservation is also key. "Just the storm runoff that leaves our property, it runs down our driveways it picks up all the oils, and other pollutants, salts and everything else that runs into the storm drains, " Brehm said.

"If we can better capture that water to let it naturally re-percolate and run into our own lawns and property, that will eliminate the amount of runoff that heads to the storm drains."

In terms of conservation, she said using rain barrels to collect rainwater that runs off roofs and down storm pipes would help.

Some residents said they are concerned that collecting water in rain barrels will attract mosquitoes in warm weather. Those fears have been compounded by the recent mosquito-born Zika virus scare.

But Brehm said, "Rain barrels themselves are not necessarily a strong vector for mosquitoes." The Ecology Action Center in Normal can provide residents with rain barrels and training in how to use them, she added.

Brehm said planting native plants that are original to this region also cuts down on the amount of watering a garden requires. Native plants are available at many local gardening stores and nurseries and go on sale every spring at the Fell Arboretum, she said.

The survey found that most residents understand that it is important not to place lawn clippings or other lawn debris along curbs, as those clippings and whatever chemicals they were treated with can eventually wash into storm drains.

Potential leaks from residential septic systems along Lake Bloomington have also become an increasing concern as larger homes have replaced many of the small cabins that originally populated that area. Residents living along Lake Bloomington were among those queried in the survey. A majority said they haven't experienced any problems with their septic systems, and regularly service them.

"It is self-reported data, so we do have to use a little bit of caution with that," Brehm said.  She added that about five percent of the Lake Bloomington respondents "said they don't even know if they have a septic system." Brehm said local government may need to require residents by law to make periodic inspections of their septic systems.

There is currently no residential development directly adjacent to Lake Evergreen.

Brehm said her study was prompted by the explosive growth in both residential and commercial development in McLean County in recent decades, increasing demand for water. While developed land has increased, land set aside for agriculture has steadily declined.

In Normal alone between 1980 and 2005, nearly a thousand acres of land changed from agriculture to urban residential use in the upper reaches of Six Mile Creek. Another 1,400 acres in the Lake Evergreen area could become urbanized in the next 20 years, the survey said. The population in McLean County increased 2.6 percent between 2010 and 2014.

The survey included 550 households in Bloomington, Towanda, Hudson, north Normal and Lake Bloomington who get their water from the Bloomington and Evergreen lakes. Normal gets its water supply from an underground aquifer, or well, and not from Lake Bloomington or Lake Evergreen.