Battles over access to fresh drinking water have been a source of conflict since humans walked upright — prompting bloody feuds, corruption, sometimes even wars.

Now, those tensions have arrived in northeastern Illinois, which, despite its proximity to the world’s fourth-largest source of fresh water, faces a coming water crisis.

Among the first battlegrounds are Chicago’s southwest suburbs, which have been reliably served for 150 years by underground sandstone aquifers that soon won’t be able to keep up with forecasted demand.

The loss of the aquifers — which comes as water bills are already rising and climate change accelerates — will leave many Chicago suburbs with the added expense of finding alternative sources to survive.

The looming crisis has political leaders, industrialists and their customers in a scramble for answers and jockeying for position in the quest to quench a growing thirst for fresh water — and turning their sights to Lake Michigan.

Enter controversial Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk, whose quixotic solution could leave him poised to become the region’s new water czar.

O’Dekirk, mayor since 2015, is pressing to build an enormous, 5½-foot-wide, 31-mile-long pipeline of steel and concrete to deliver water from Lake Michigan.

The projected price tag to build it and get the water to Joliet homes and surrounding towns by 2030: up to $1.4 billion the city of Joliet and its potential partners do not have.

Earlier this year, O’Dekirk cut a preliminary deal with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to buy water from Chicago at a discount. O’Dekirk’s plan calls for leveraging Joliet’s deal by bringing in neighboring communities early at the same discounted rate to help offset borrowing costs.

But he’s holding a stick, as well as a carrot. Neighboring towns may lose the opportunity for discounts, he said, if they stay on the sidelines now and try to buy their way in later.

And O’Dekirk makes no apology for his willingness to borrow money or his embrace of development and growth to help pay it back.

“I’m going to have the debt with or without the growth,” O’Dekirk said in an interview with the Better Government Association. “We did not have the option to let the city run out of water.”

But officials in some neighboring suburbs are concerned about becoming overly dependent on Joliet — and O’Dekirk.

“Joliet is looking to regionalize to lower the cost of their issue,” said Ben Benson, the city administrator in nearby Lockport, which ended negotiations with Joliet earlier this summer because of the price tag.

Environmentalists and other groups, meanwhile, are looking to strangle the mayor’s economic development plans. Joliet is already in court fighting to annex land for large, water-gulping industrial and warehouse developers he needs to help pay for the massive pipeline.

What’s more, O’Dekirk is saddled with a string of legal and political quagmires.

Among them is his strained relationship with Joliet’s Black community following his physical confrontation with a Black Lives Matter protester and a well-publicized memo from his former police chief alluding to a possible federal corruption probe.

Joliet officials acknowledge the pipeline’s success hinges on whether the city can sell the lake water it buys wholesale from Chicago with enough profit to pay off the debt and keep Joliet’s rates from soaring.

“The water we buy from the city of Chicago can be resold,” O’Dekirk said at his March state of the city speech at a Holiday Inn Express in one of the city’s warehouse districts. “I definitely believe the city of Joliet is going to reap dividends from this 50 or 100 years moving forward.”

O’Dekirk insists those benefits will be shared with nearby towns that sign up now to help him build it.

“We understand other communities around us are facing the same problems we are. We understand they don’t have the resources,” he said. “What we have provided is a way for everybody to move forward.”

The challenges are almost as enormous as the undertaking.

Joliet’s Billion-dollar Pipeline

With underground aquifers that supply drinking water to Chicago suburbs drying up, the city of Joliet examined two pipeline projects to connect the region to water from Lake Michigan — one through Chicago and the other through Hammond, Ind. The Chicago option was eventually selected. But debt service of more than $1 billion for the pipeline construction will bring sticker shock to ratepayers, and Joliet is scrambling to sign up neighboring towns to help share the costs.

Source: City of Joliet

To pay the debt, O’Dekirk plans to more than double Joliet residents’ average monthly water bill by 2030 — from $34 to $79 or more, depending on how many neighboring towns join the project early. And he’s prepared to charge at least some neighboring communities a premium for water one Joliet city councilman acknowledges has for generations been “somewhat free.”

Already, O’Dekirk has made much progress.

In January, the Lightfoot administration backed down on its initial prices, securing a 100-year deal with Joliet to sell already-treated lake water from Chicago for $2.82 per thousand gallons. That’s 30% less than the $4.08 per thousand gallons Chicago charges its other municipal customers, including several already leveraging Joliet’s deal for discounts of their own.

O’Dekirk pushed through the massive project at his own city council days after striking the Chicago deal by a 7-1 vote, getting permission to borrow the money and start negotiating rates with other towns in the region.

Although ground has not yet broken, engineering studies are underway on the pipeline and the massive water storage facilities the project requires. O’Dekirk is also negotiating wholesale rates with 11 of the 19 municipalities he initially approached.

“Most people would love to have Lake Michigan water,” said Ray Soliman, mayor of Crest Hill, Joliet’s neighbor to the north. “But there are tremendous costs involved. Some of the numbers being tossed around are just exorbitant.”

As a result, Soliman said, his community is pushing for a better deal.

Prices Stun Local Officials

The BGA interviewed a dozen mayors, village administrators and public works directors who have had negotiations with O’Dekirk’s administration to access the new pipeline.

In January, before it finalized the Chicago deal, Joliet suggested each suburban partner pay a “hook-up” fee of up to $17 million for every million gallons of water it uses on its busiest day of the year. After that, each would be charged a rate around $4.25 per thousand gallons it uses, according to numbers Joliet officials presented to surrounding towns in a PowerPoint presentation obtained by the BGA.

But in his final agreement with Chicago, O’Dekirk won the right to share the $2.82 rate he negotiated with Lightfoot with other members of the regional water commission he plans to form. O’Dekirk has promised to pass along that wholesale rate to his neighbors who sign up early. Joliet could also resell any surplus Chicago water at higher rates.

“We’re looking at partners right now,” he said in an interview with the BGA. “If we partner with 10 other communities, we’re all going to pay the same rate. Down the road, 20 to 30 years from now and we see other communities that want to buy in, we’ll have to look at the rates we’re going to charge.”

On top of the hook-up fee and the monthly water rates, each municipality would also face its own costs for upgrading delivery systems.

Made with Flourish

In nearby Minooka, the hook-up fees could cost the town of about 11,000 about $115 million over three decades, according to a preliminary estimate from Ryan Anderson, Minooka’s public works director. If imposed only on today’s residents of Minooka, these costs could boost water bills by $55 per month per household for the next 30 years, Anderson said. But Minooka would borrow the money, hoping future population growth will help ease the burden, he said.

Its other options for water include the hope its own wells hold out for another 50 years or pump water from the nearby Illinois River.

“It’s the biggest decision our village has ever made,” Anderson said. “If people don’t want to spend the money to go to Lake Michigan, the time to speak up is now.”

To the northeast in Homer Glen, a private utility company — Illinois American

Water — is already charging residential customers $17.39 per thousand gallons. Some residents reported paying $700 per month after watering their lawns, according to Mayor George Yukich, who is suing Illinois American Water to escape its contract.

According to O’Dekirk’s projections, Joliet residents could be paying nearly as much. An average monthly water bill of $79 translates to about $15 per thousand gallons.

To the northwest, the villages of Yorkville, Oswego and Montgomery are considering a joint venture to spend $100 million or more to hook up to Joliet or other potential sources, including the Fox River.

In Lockport, city officials say they are confident in alternative water sources if they ever need them, including the Kankakee River.

“For us, it’s more local. We don’t have a water problem in Lockport,” said Benson, the Lockport city administrator.

‘It was somewhat free’

Joliet City Councilman Pat Mudron, chairman of the city council’s finance committee, is bracing for what he calls an “astronomical” political backlash unless the city can prevent costs from spiraling.

He said Joliet is working hard to accommodate its potential partners while trying to ensure it recovers the costs of building and financing the pipeline.

Mudron said the sticker shock on future water has left some local towns facing a dire future. He also worries cost overruns could cause water rates to sextuple instead of double or triple.

“I don’t think anybody cared,” Mudron said about the easy availability of water in the past. “I won’t say water was free, but it was somewhat free.”

Mudron said negotiations are underway for lower hook-up fees, stretched-out payments, financing assistance and even potential changes to the pipeline route to reduce the costs for some of the small towns.

Mudron said Joliet has already made sacrifices to accommodate the coming tidal wave of water debt. Planned subsidies for a history museum, music theater and riverfront bandshell were all cut, he said, to avoid damage to the city’s credit rating, and, in turn, higher borrowing costs for water.

Unless surrounding cities sign up for the pipeline and help pay for it, Mudron said, Joliet will face a “daunting” challenge. “We’d have to redo our budget completely,” he said.

O’Dekirk is pressing surrounding towns for a firm answer by the end of the year. He’s hoping they’ll join him in purchasing 60 million gallons per day of Chicago water to start. But he’ll have to cut the size of the pipe in half if the surrounding towns refuse.

‘Volatile’ politics raise concerns

Another obstacle to the success of O’Dekirk’s regional plan is O’Dekirk. His tenure as mayor has been riddled with controversy, including one public relations debacle after a former supporter accused him of corruption.

And last summer, O’Dekirk, 51 — a former police officer who has cultivated a hard-driving, law-and-order reputation — fended off a call for his resignation from many leaders of the area’s Black community.

Questions surfaced about O’Dekirk’s sensitivity to minority issues after he tackled a Black Lives Matter protester in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. He later defended the action by saying he’d acted in self-defense.

In an email to the BGA, O’Dekirk suggested the controversies have been overblown and pointed out the “considerable interest” in his ambitious water plans.

He said the person was not a protester but rather was “participating in a riot.” The Will County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to press charges against O’Dekirk in August, but he, the city and some of its police officers face an ongoing federal lawsuit from the man he tackled and the man’s brother.

In his state of the city speech, he praised police for suppressing what he described as a violent “mob” that broke free from peaceful protesters.

“We will never sit back and allow lawlessness to rule the day or rule the night,” O’Dekirk said in the speech.

One of the Black leaders who called for O’Dekirk’s resignation after the incident was Joliet Councilwoman Bettye Gavin. She represents the city’s east side, neighborhoods she said are in desperate need of water delivery pipes that don’t crumble routinely during subzero weather.

“I did not think it was appropriate for the mayor of a city to rush out and grab someone like that,” Gavin said, adding the incident made it difficult for her to back O’Dekirk’s water plan. “When you get these issues on top of each other, one can blow the other one up.

“We’ve been pretty neglected in terms of infrastructure on the east side,” she said. “We’re having to deal with those demons now.”

Gavin said O’Dekirk has a lot of work to do to win support among her constituents. She advocates for Joliet to provide assistance for residents who can’t afford rising water bills.

O’Dekirk has also faced fallout from a 2019 police department memo regarding the mayor’s efforts to quiet rumors of a federal corruption probe into the water deal.

The memo, written by former Joliet Police Chief Al Roechner and reported in the Joliet Herald-News, documents O’Dekirk’s efforts to discredit a police sergeant who was telling people about the alleged probe.

The sergeant was telling associates O’Dekirk and a friend “have land and are going to make money off a water deal, and the feds are coming,” the mayor told Roechner, according to the ex-chief’s memo. “I’m tired of this (expletive).”

O’Dekirk also accused the sergeant — a former campaign worker for the mayor — of being publicly inebriated when he made the remarks, an accusation the chief said was unsupported by evidence.

O’Dekirk was a Joliet cop for 10 years before joining the city council in 2011. He became mayor four years later, mainly with the help of building trades unions and construction companies.

While working part time as mayor, O’Dekirk is also the town’s liquor commissioner, and he runs a Joliet law firm specializing in family and criminal law.

O’Dekirk’s tumultuous tenure has been a concern among officials of neighboring communities considering the water partnership.

Anderson, the Minooka public works director, said neighboring towns have been concerned from the beginning about the “volatile” politics that prevail in Joliet generally and around O’Dekirk in particular. So they banded together, he said, to force O’Dekirk to abandon his plan for “proportional” representation, in which voting inside the regional water commission would be weighted in favor of Joliet and the other big towns.

“The way it looks now, nobody’s going to be on a higher horse than anyone else,” Anderson said. “Large communities and small communities, they’re each going to have one vote.”

Mudron, the Joliet city councilman, agreed. “The regional group will be running the show, not the city of Joliet,” he said.

“This is needed because there always seems to be some turmoil around here, always some publicity, which is not good, and most of it seems to be caused from the mayor’s office,” he said.

Hugh O’Hara, executive director of the Will County Governmental League, said the precise impact of the O’Dekirk controversies is hard to measure.

“I don’t think it’s an outlandish question,” he said. “This project is much bigger than any one community or any one mayor,” O’Hara said. “By all accounts, Joliet got a very good deal from the city of Chicago.”

Courting Corporate Customers

In addition to the negotiations with municipalities, O’Dekirk is also looking to major employers such as an ExxonMobil tar sands refinery in Joliet and two nearby petrochemical plants as potential regional water partners. The three plants now rely on the dying aquifers for some or all of their primary water supply, according to the Illinois State Water Survey.

The ExxonMobil refinery in Channahon, Illinois is among the largest potential private customers for Joliet’s plan to supply Lake Michigan water to the region. (Samantha Cabrera Friend for Better Government Association/CatchLight Local)

By connecting them to Lake Michigan, O’Dekirk is offering the prospect of a long-term supply.

“We are evaluating our water needs and potential sources,” said Pete Colarelli, an ExxonMobil spokesman, in a statement. He declined to provide details.

Each day at its Joliet refinery, ExxonMobil produces about 9 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel, suggesting its daily water usage is about 4 million gallons, based on a recent study of water consumption in oil refineries.

Another potential user is the Compass Business Park, a cluster of e-commerce distribution warehouses on acreage that initially would be eight times bigger than Chicago’s Grant Park. It’s being promoted by Riverside, Missouri-based NorthPoint Development.

O’Dekirk is annexing land for the massive project south and east of Joliet. While the mayor boasts of potentially 10,000 new jobs, the environmental impact will be significant — initially requiring 500,000 gallons of water per day, according to city emails obtained by opponents of the project through the Freedom of Information Act.

The mayor is battling for the NorthPoint project in two courtrooms.

In one, the village of Elwood is trying to block a bridge that would send thousands of trucks through town each day. In the other, the Sierra Club, Openlands and others are claiming the annexation violated Joliet’s own zoning laws. Among other problems, they say, the city refused to disclose how NorthPoint’s water consumption will affect a nearby, federally protected nature preserve called the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

In his email to the BGA, O’Dekirk described NorthPoint as “a billion dollar investment in our city, which is coveted by many neighboring communities.”

Tom George, NorthPoint’s vice president for acquisitions, said Joliet consultants now estimate the project’s eventual water use at up to 450,000 gallons per day. If the same land were developed with single-family homes, water usage would be three times greater, he said.

Help From Chicago

Armed with his Chicago deal and approval from his city council, O’Dekirk already has hired JPMorgan Chase & Co. to underwrite revenue bonds, and he has applied for federal and state loans. Construction on the pipeline is set to begin by 2025.

According to the preliminary written agreement between Joliet and Chicago, the Lightfoot administration could sell Joliet up to 95 million gallons per day. That’s roughly six times the amount of water Joliet uses now.

Chicago officials initially demanded $4.08 for every 1000 gallons of water but reduced the price to $2.82 after O’Dekirk threatened to build his pipeline from Hammond, Indiana instead.

The Lightfoot administration is faced with water problems of its own. Chicago, which now uses only 39% of its maximum daily pumping capacity out of the lake, needs more customers. Declining population, less industry, more efficient home appliances and fewer leaky pipes leaching into the ground has state environmentalists predicting a decline in Chicago’s average daily pumping to 534 million gallons per day by midcentury, down from a projected 617 million gallons next year, records show. This decline would help the lake but not Chicago finances.

So Lightfoot slashed her prices and sweetened Joliet’s deal even more.

Chicago agreed to tight controls on how much it can raise rates during the century-long deal, and Lightfoot promised not to privatize or otherwise turn over control of the city’s water system without Joliet’s permission. She also agreed Chicago may explore financing the pipeline — and backing O’Dekirk with the city’s full faith and credit — if he can’t raise money elsewhere.

Pushing the Lake’s Limits

Another hurdle for O’Dekirk’s plan is the federal limits on how much water can be drained from Lake Michigan.

A 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decree limits the state’s total withdrawals from the lake, which means the Illinois Department of Natural Resources must approve such an enormous drain.

If Joliet and surrounding towns use the entire 95 million gallons per day O’Dekirk has agreed to buy from Chicago, they would need almost all remaining water the entire state could draw from the lake under federal rules, based on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’s most recent report.

The IDNR approved Joliet’s initial allocation Sept. 1, and the agency appears to be giving a green light to at least some other towns considering the pipeline.

“Our consultants have had conversations with the IDNR saying, should we apply, we’ll likely have an allocation,” said Jennifer Hughes, director of public works for Oswego. “I don’t have anything in writing to that effect. But they’re supportive of us coming off the aquifer.”

Jennifer Hughes, director of public works for Oswego, explains to residents the impact of the looming water crisis at a Sept. 15 public forum. (John Lippert for Better Government Association)

The agency thinks it can afford to be supportive, Hughes said, in part because long-term trends such as water-efficient home appliances are making it easier for the state to comply with court-imposed pumping limits. IDNR officials declined to comment.

O’Dekirk hopes at least 11 surrounding towns with a quarter-million people hook up to his pipeline. In the 30-year projections from his consultants, those cities would use about 40% of the water and pay about 40% of the cost.

“I am happy to report that there is considerable interest from other communities in the project we have put together,” the mayor said earlier this month in an email to the BGA.

Joliet must finalize those deals to make a profit on the water it buys from Chicago and to help prevent its own rates from exploding, Mudron said. But excessive profits could quickly enrage its potential partners in surrounding towns.

“So where is that fine line,” Mudron asked, “and how do we find it?”