The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has approved Lake Michigan water for several communities in northern and western Lake County.
The make-or-break decision means eight towns and two water systems run by Lake County have the right to withdraw water from the lake, and can continue the complicated process of determining how that will be done and how much it will cost.
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"This is what really has started the ball rolling again," said Wauconda Mayor Mark Knigge, president of the Lake County Municipal League.
"Now that we know we've got the water, people can make some decisions," said Peter Kolb, Lake County public works director.
Wauconda and the other members of the North-West Lake County Lake Michigan Water Planning Group made individual pitches in early 2010 to the IDNR, asking for Lake Michigan water to replace what are considered to be dwindling supplies.
Kolb said that eight of the 10 entities were approved for a Lake Michigan allocation as being the most economical source of water. Lake Zurich and Long Grove were approved because it would reduce the reliance on the deep aquifer as a water source, he said.
"This is going to take years," Kolb allowed. "What's wonderful now is one of the major hurdles has been cleared."
The effort, which began more than four years ago, had been on hold pending the IDNR decision.
Other members are Antioch, Volo, Lindenhurst, Lake Villa, Fox Lake and Lake County, which operates systems in Grandwood Park and Fox Lake Hills.
"We are very, very excited about it," said Lindenhurst Mayor Susan Lahr.
"The next step for Lindenhurst is just to make sure we're looking at all the options available."
Members will have to form a governing body or determine whether it would be feasible or cost effective to join the Central Lake County Joint Action Water Agency, which has supplied Lake Michigan water to several communities for years.
That group reportedly has done a study to determine whether it could accommodate new members and what would need to be done to extend water to those areas.
Initial studies were based on receiving water through the Lake County Public Water District in Zion.
Preliminary plans discussed by the consortium estimated the cost of extending 57 miles of pipes and installing equipment needed to treat and carry the lake water from that point at $252 million.
About half the cost would come from bonds to be funded by property taxes and the rest from monthly service charges. The average home would pay about $40 more per month for Lake Michigan water, according to a county estimate.
"That's not to say we're not open to any other alternatives that are better or more cost effective," Kolb said.
The entities are expected to meet in February to determine the next steps and a public education program is expected to be among the items discussed.
Determining exact costs will be part of the work going forward but pulling the trigger could be up to voters in individual areas.
"It's all finance driven," Knigge said. "We'll do our due diligence to get the most cost effective system we can and let the residents decide."
Studies have shown the underground water sources have limited capacity and are susceptible to impurities and contaminants, according to the county.