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To avert crisis, Illinois should enact law regulating water withdrawal

July 02, 2000

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Whether or not a drought materializes this summer, Illinois needs a water law to regulate the withdrawal of water from streams before there is a crisis leading to rationing and poor water quality, a University of Illinois engineer recommends.

"At present, there is no surface water withdrawal law," says Wayland Eheart, a professor of civil engineering. "The state controls what you can put in the water, but not what you take out. Anyone can drop an intake hose in a stream and remove all the water his pump will take."

The long-range drying trend predicted for Illinois means "the potential for disaster is huge," Eheart writes in the upcoming issue of Illinois Environmental Policy Review, a newsletter published by the UI department of natural resources and environmental sciences.

Eheart warns that several droughts within a short time could induce farmers to install irrigation equipment using nearby streams and creeks. This strategy would not only decrease stream levels, but reduce the ability of a stream to absorb pollutants, leading to poor water quality.

Although most Illinois farmers do not irrigate, there is a trend toward using big center-pivot rigs to water high-value crops such as seed corn. The typical rig, covering 160 acres, can consume water at the same rate as a medium-sized city because a large portion of the water evaporates. By contrast, most water used by households and industries is recycled. "It goes down the drain, is treated in the sewage treatment facility and goes back into streams and lakes for re-use," Eheart explained.

He proposes regulations similar to those in Iowa and Wisconsin that require legal permits for surface-water withdrawals. "The Illinois Legislature could empower the department of natural resources to control water withdrawals and set up rules that allocate water among competing users," he said.

"When there is insufficient water to satisfy all needs, domestic drinking water should probably have a priority over agricultural irrigation, but municipal use such as lawn watering and car washing should not come before industrial or agricultural stock-watering requirements."

Such rules would protect farmers from losing water to upstream users, the UI professor said. "If someone puts in a pipe just upstream from a farm and takes all the water, the farmer currently has no legal recourse other than a protracted lawsuit. With regulation, a farmer might have to share, but could be assured of access to some water."

Eheart believes that a "market-based" allocation system could also work in which a farmer could sell his withdrawal permit to others and switch to a less water-intensive crop such as wheat. At a minimum, Illinois should set up a registry of farms, municipalities and industries consuming significant amounts of surface water, the UI engineer recommends.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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