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updated: 7/18/2012 8:13 AM

Water 101: How to weather the drought

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  • An American Goldfinch pokes around duckweed near Boy Scout Island in St. Charles. The bird's most common natural habitat is weedy fields and floodplains, but with the drought, creatures of all kinds are seeking water wherever they can find it.

       An American Goldfinch pokes around duckweed near Boy Scout Island in St. Charles. The bird's most common natural habitat is weedy fields and floodplains, but with the drought, creatures of all kinds are seeking water wherever they can find it.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • The waters of Nelson Lake Marsh in Batavia have drastically receded during the recent drought.

       The waters of Nelson Lake Marsh in Batavia have drastically receded during the recent drought.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Normally drought-hardy Queen Anne's Lace can be found looking droopy due to the lack of rain this summer.

       Normally drought-hardy Queen Anne's Lace can be found looking droopy due to the lack of rain this summer.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • The shoreline of the Fox River along the Batavia Riverwalk has receded several feet due to the ongoing drought.

       The shoreline of the Fox River along the Batavia Riverwalk has receded several feet due to the ongoing drought.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 

It was 101 degrees at 4 p.m. A hot, dry wind was blowing from the west.

Stuck in the gridlock of Randall Road, I watched as sprinklers shot water in glistening arcs over grass-covered median strips. Millions of water drops were evaporating into thin air, never reaching a blade of grass.

I cringed. That was my water someone was wasting. Your water, too.

Water is a resource that everyone needs, everyone uses, and, like it or not, everyone shares. When you fill the pool, water the lawn, flush the toilet, wash your clothes, and take a shower, you are dipping into a common water source, along with thousands of other people. Plants and animals, too, share this resource.

The waste of water that I observed on Randall Road is played out in many ways, in many places, day after day. Profligate waste of shared resources is nothing new. It just so happens that we are in a drought -- a darn serious one at that -- and squandering water is particularly egregious these days.

Part of the problem is lack of knowledge. Many people know surprisingly little about water, even though we literally cannot live without it. Turn on the tap, and there it is. Turn the spigot, and there it is. Flip a switch, and there it is. But where does that water come from? How does it get there? Where does it go? Is there more where it came from? If you're not sure about the answers to these questions, you're not alone.

Water Awareness 101 begins with finding out where we get our water. Depending on where you live, water may come from Lake Michigan, the Fox River, wells, or a combination of these. Elgin and Aurora draw from the river, augmented by the use of wells. Most communities in Kane County and outlying areas are dependent on wells alone.

Wells draw from a supply of groundwater. Groundwater hangs out in tiny spaces between sand grains, microscopic pores in gravel, and small crevices in rocks underground. Coaxing it out is a process involving the use of an electromechanical system to either pull water up using atmospheric pressure, or push it up with water pressure.

Areas with an accumulation of groundwater are known as aquifers. Aquifers are the common source of water for thousands of people in Kane County. There are three types of aquifers: sand and gravel aquifers, shallow bedrock aquifers, and deep bedrock aquifers.

Bedrock aquifers are more than 500 feet underground; sand/gravel and shallow bedrock aquifers are less than 500 feet deep. These aquifers have yielded abundant water for many years.

Although water is an abundant resource, it's not inexhaustible. The tremendous increase in Kane County's population in the last 25 years has been accompanied by an increase in water use. The population is expected to continue to grow in the decades ahead. The demand for water will rise accordingly. This spells trouble with a capital T. New homes can be built, but new aquifers cannot.

"Projections of demands for metropolitan Chicago and other major urban areas show water shortages will appear soon if nothing is done," wrote the Illinois Groundwater Association.

The Center for Groundwater Science concurred in a summary report of research conducted between 2002 and 2009: "Model simulations show that withdrawals from deep wells will potentially cause water supply interruptions. The modeling suggests that two large areas of significant drawdown, or declines in water levels, will affect shallow wells. The largest area includes parts of northeastern Kane County and southeastern McHenry County, and the second area surrounds wells in west-central DuPage County, east of Kane County. A third area of significant drawdown will likely develop around public-supply wells operated by Batavia and Geneva and is located west of those cities."

To picture the drawdown of water from aquifers, imagine lots of people around a table, sipping from straws in glasses of water that are all connected. The water level in everyone's glasses goes down as each person sips. In hydrology-speak, this is called drawdown.

In our analogy, a waiter may come around and refill the water glasses. This is called recharge. People may sip at different rates, and the waiter may come at irregular times, so the volume of water in reserve may change. In real life, as in the analogy, the situation is dynamic, and the water reserve is always changing.

Barring waiters with very large pitchers of water, how do our aquifers get recharged? Deep bedrock aquifers are recharged by "vertical leakage" as water seeps from stored water in rocks above. Shallow sand and gravel aquifers are recharged from precipitation and stream runoff -- neither of which we've seen much lately.

According to the Illinois State Water Survey, "Water levels in (sand and gravel) aquifers are more sensitive to climatic conditions and will decline in response to dry weather. The situation can be further exacerbated (when) water demand … increases during drought, causing wells to be operated at higher pumping rates and/or for longer periods."

Shrinking aquifers is not a pleasant prospect.

It's not all about us, though. Nonhuman life relies on water sources, too. The water table, or the level of water saturation underground, is critical for animals and plants. Plants are sustained by roots reaching down to the water table. Animals, too, rely on it.

Wildlife biologist Bill Graser of the Forest Preserve District of Kane County recently found turtles seeking refuge in mud where pond water used to be, the pond having sunk with the water table.

I saw robins last week vying with shorebirds at the river, trying to belly up to the bar for a drink. American toads lie like fried pancakes on the hot pavement of the bike trail, trying to reach a moist haven on the other side. Times are tough.

So what can you do? Many of us have already done rain dances to no avail. But there are other actions to take. Educate yourself. Find out about your municipality's water plan. Go to planning meetings and chime in. Make some changes in your household to include long-range water conservation.

Landscape with native plants that can tough it out during dry spells. Install a rain barrel or two and capture water that would otherwise be lost as runoff. Replace old fixtures with new, water-conserving devices in the house.

The most important thing you can do is to use water wisely each and every day. Whether it's taking shorter showers, running the dishwasher only when full, fixing leaky faucets, or picking up a broom instead of the hose to clean the steps -- it all adds up. The sum is a lifestyle of water conservation.

The silver lining in the rainless cloud of the Drought of 2012 is increased awareness of water as an invaluable resource. Drought is a wake-up call to many of us, a reminder to use water wisely.

Drought is an eye-opener to others who previously paid little attention to water. And drought is a lesson yet to be learned by spendthrifts at the spigot, watering turf grass like there's no tomorrow.

There is, of course, tomorrow. And that makes today a perfect time to conserve.

• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with a very dry yard full of native plants in St. Charles. You can reach her by email blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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