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Champaign-Urbana, Illinois Water Supply

A public radio special

Episode 2

"How much water do we have?"

In this four-part public radio special report Bill investigates the origins of the Champaign-Urbana Water supply. He looks at where our water comes from, how much water we have in the ground, how we should best manage that water supply, and how much water we use every day - including water we import from China!

Episode 2

Bill Hammack visits with Norm Stenzel who lives in rural Champaign County near Bondville. The new well field being built by Illinois-American Water surrounds - and threaten - his well. Clips from Derek Winstanley and Al Wehrmann at the Illinois Water Survey and David Larson at the Illinois Geological Survey highlight the key issue with the water supply: It isn't a fear of running out of water, but concern about how concentrated pumping can affect locally the cost of water by changing the characteristics of the wells. The pieces closes asking what we mean by "managing correctly" our water supply -- the subject of the next episode.


Norm There's Bill."

Bill "How are you."

Norm "Wanna sit on the porch here"

Bill Norm Stenzel and his family live in an earth-covered house on the edge of a corn field, next to a pond stocked with blue gills. Like everyone who lives in the country this seemingly idyllic life depends on a well.

Norm "Our lifeline as far as survival out in the country. We use that for all of our home needs. We use it for the cattle and for the chicken."

Bill That well, which draws from the Mahomet Aquifer, might be under threat ...

Norm "Straight south there's a well for Illinois American Water on the road a mile south of us. A mile south of that is the Illinois American Water treatment plant. A mile south and a mile west is another well in the well field .... "A mile east of us, actually two miles east of us is The Andersons -- and if Anderson's put up their ethanol plant they'll have a well of their own."

Bill Stenzel's property sits smack dab in the middle of the Illinois-American Water Company's new well-field near Bondville - wells that will supply Champaign-Urbana with millions of gallons a day. Only a stone's throw away sits The Andersons grain elevator, which some day might house a water-hungry ethanol plant.

Norm "If both Illinois-American and Anderson's are pumping out of that I may be affected by both those cones of depression."

Bill While Stenzel should worry about his well, it isn't because the aquifer will run out of water. David Larson tells me that the its "huge", and he ought to know - he's head of the hydrology section of the Illinois State Geological Survey.

Larson "... I think that's the thing that most people don't understand: That this thing is huge .... but the thickness varies from something like 70 to 150 feet thick and the width varies from less than mile to several miles and it goes from the Indian state line all the way over the the Illinois River ... its a huge amount of water."

Bill The aquifer holds trillions of gallons. Yet if it won't run dry why should Norm Stenzel be concerned about his well?

Larson "... if there is uncontrolled development that goes in with a lot of wells being concentrated in a small area that certainly would have a very different impact than if that were spread out over a larger part of the aquifer."

Bill In Larson's word "concentrated" lies the key to evaluating the demands placed on our water supply. The Mahomet Aquifer isn't an underground river that flows freely, but slowly moving water nested in pores. This in turns affects the functioning of a well field. Think of it this way: You're at a beach and you step back a few feet from the surf. In the dry sand you dig a hole; eventually, of course, you'll strike water. If someone were to build a similar "well" too close to yours it would lower the water level in your "well." Yet if someone a mile down the beach dug a hole it wouldn't affect you at all. So the closer the wells the more interference. Al Wehrmann of the water survey says that human actions can often change the flow of water in an aquifer.

Wehermann "Water that used to just flow down the valley, we're also now pulling water back from Piatt county. So we've actually reversed the flow in a portion of the aquifer."

Bill While this might sound ominous, all wells modify the flow underneath to a degree. Geologist Larson says we need to keep the following in mind:

Larson "It's a very good water supply and that if its managed correctly it will sustain us for many years to come."

Bill But what does David Larson mean by "manging correctly"? Tomorrow I look at how we should responsibly use the water in the Mahomet Aquifer, including the impact of high-water-use ethanol plants. For AM-580 news I'm Bill Hammack.