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Chicago suburbs save water and money curbing outdoor water use

Inefficient outdoor water use is a strain on a water supply already pushed to the brink

By Anjanette Riley, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant

Water conservation has moved center stage in the Chicago suburbs. Summer shortages are a major concern here, and communities are looking to tackle the problem at its source: inefficient outdoor water use.

Around 30 percent of all residential water is used outdoors. Much of that water cannot be absorbed by the soil and instead runs off into sewers that eventually empty into nearby waterways. And this inefficient watering is a strain on a water supply already pushed to the brink by an ever-growing population and more frequent summer droughts.

Communities in the Northwest Water Planning Alliance (NWPA) responded to concerns over long-term water supplies in 2012 by endorsing a lawn watering ordinance, which is now on the books in six cities. The measure limits watering year-round to specific days. Restrictions can be tightened during summer droughts. Under extreme drought conditions, the ordinance bans outdoor watering altogether.  

“Water is really a regional issue, and we have to work together to plan for the future,” said Tom Weisner, mayor of Aurora and founding chairman of NWPA. “The ordinance has been really well received in Aurora because people understand the immense value of conserving water for future generations.”   

Outdoor water conservation can also be a boon to city budgets, Weisner added. Aurora’s lawn watering restrictions, which stretch back almost a decade, have saved the city around $10 million in planned infrastructure and equipment costs.  

The NWPA ordinance was developed with input from the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG). IISG’s Margaret Schneemann worked with local decision makers and water managers to ensure they understood how to comply with the ordinance and provided the tools needed to educate residents.

The region’s conservation efforts extend far beyond city ordinances. IISG is also leading an initiative to give homeowners and businesses information and tools to further curb water use while still maintaining healthy lawns and gardens—whether their community has adopted lawn watering restrictions or not.

At the heart of this effort is a guidebook with advice for building a water-wise lawn. Tips include limiting pesticide use, applying natural fertilizers only when needed, and aerating lawns every fall. Lawn and Landscape Practices for Northwest Planning Alliance Communities also shows how planting a rain garden or installing rain barrels on downspouts can help residents get the most out of summer showers.

“These practices build healthier lawns using half the water,” said Schneemann, a water supply program specialist. “Taking these steps will also reduce stormwater pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, which degrade water quality and harm aquatic wildlife.”

These and other NWPA efforts are helping the greater Chicago metropolitan area move closer to the goals laid out in Water2050, a comprehensive water supply management strategy developed in 2010. Conservation strategies like lawn watering restrictions, as well as implementing water rates that reflect the real cost of summertime watering, were identified as primary strategies for ensuring that demand doesn’t outpace supply

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