An often overlooked part of daily life in the 1,900 homes and businesses that comprise Grandwood Park changed last week as Lake Michigan water began flowing from taps, showers and hoses.
There wasn't a countdown or ceremonial valve opening, but gradually on Thursday and Friday, lake water replaced well water in the unincorporated area west of Gurnee.
Touted as better quality and a more reliable and plentiful source compared to wells, the introduction of lake water into the Lake County-operated system is a milestone for a plan introduced a decade ago.
Connecting Grandwood Park is the first of four projects to bring Lake Michigan water to the area, with the others serving unincorporated Fox Lake Hills and the villages of Lake Villa and Lindenhurst.
"I'm a bit jealous," admitted Jim Tonias, who oversees water and wastewater treatment in northern Lake County for the county's public works department.
"We will get some complaints about the increase in price, (but) this is one of the best-quality water supplies available in the United States," he said.
Whether that will be a universal observation remains to be seen.
"I prefer the old taste, but I imagine it's a question of getting used to it," said Steve Carlson, a longtime resident and Lake County Board member.
Residents were informed they may see a slight discoloration to start, but Carlson said his tap was clear with no rust or residue. He said it tasted "more metallic" than the old supply but acknowledged it could be his imagination.
However, he supported the need for a new source after the well system basically dried up years ago during a drought.
"It's something we had to do," Carlson said.
Providing a new water source to communities known as the North Group involves 12 miles of piping and associated equipment. Including engineering and design, the total project cost is $38.7 million, according to Darrell Blenniss Jr., executive director of the Central Lake County Joint Action Water Agency, which treats and distributes Lake Michigan water.
That does not include system upgrades needed in individual communities to receive, store or distribute the water. JAWA brings water to the door, so to speak, but the towns must get it to customers.
In Lindenhurst, for example, the cost of internal improvements totals more than $16 million in what is considered the largest public works project undertaken there. That has included extending and increasing the size of water mains and building a million-gallon reservoir.
"I feel it's probably the biggest decision the Lindenhurst board will ever make," Mayor Dominic Marturano said. "It will have a long-lasting impact on the town."
Lake water is expected to flow in the village this fall, a few months ahead of schedule.
Blenniss said the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing a $6.4 million bid for Fox Lake Hills work, and land acquisition continues for the Lake Villa connection, with construction bids expected to be sought soon. All the work is financed by low-interest state loans.
JAWA's systemwide costs are paid by property taxes through a special service area encompassing 11,295 parcels. Water users in individual communities have or will see fee increases for the internal work.
Lake County is one of the original nine members of JAWA, which became operational in 1992. The county-operated system of Lake Michigan water has been extended to select spots over time, but Lake Villa and Lindenhurst are the first new members.
Wauconda and Volo, known as the West Group, will be next. Blenniss said a $5.1 million contract, the first of four associated with work to connect those towns, was recently sent to the state for review.
Those communities are participating in planning and will become members once the state authorizes the first construction project and the contract is signed. That could happen within about 45 days, Blenniss said.
The idea to bring Lake Michigan water to north and western Lake County has been a long and, at times, contentious process. Some communities that originally received the required Lake Michigan water allocation from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources are out of the picture.
"We couldn't take everybody on, but we looked at the long-range water needs of the North and West group members and we could make it work from an engineering standpoint," Blenniss said. "These communities have a need. By bringing them on, we're able to spread our costs over more gallons so we can lower the rates for everybody."