McHenry County leaders discuss drought

WOODSTOCK – McHenry County is in a drought, in case the brown lawns, dry ponds and knee-high July corn didn’t tip you off.

While officials at a county “drought summit” spent time Wednesday stating the obvious, they had a motive for doing so: namely that a big part of mitigating the drought’s effects rests with individual water users.

It’s been dry, thanks to a lack of summer rain and a very dry winter, and it’s likely going to get drier. The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center predicts Illinois’ dry conditions will persist or get worse through September. Experts such as Cory Horton, county storm-water engineer, said governments and water users must cooperate.

“I think now is the time to plan, to prepare and to work together,” Horton said.

McHenry County, like about half of the state, is experiencing “moderate” drought by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration standards.

Northern Illinois, with a deficit of about 4 to 6 inches of rain, is faring better than downstate, which gets drier the farther south you go, according to Walt Kelly, acting director of the Illinois State Water Survey. The moisture deficit is 6 to 10 inches in central Illinois and up to 12 inches in the southern part of the state.

An average of 12.6 inches of precipitation fell statewide in the first half of 2012 – so far the sixth-driest on record, Kelly said.

Speakers at Wednesday’s summit put the drought into perspective, based on local data and comparisons with the last significant drought in 2005.

Much of McHenry County is between 50 percent and 75 percent of normal precipitation, according to the National Weather Service. Central and western portions of the county are at 75 percent of normal. About 10 inches of precipitation was recorded in the Hebron rain gauge as of the end of June, compared with 18 inches in a normal year, Horton said.

Water levels reported at a county monitoring well in Algonquin Township show groundwater levels down 25 feet since January. Rivers are down, as well. The average stream flow last month for the Fox River below the Algonquin Dam is almost 60 percent below the June average, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

As of Tuesday, the flow of Nippersink Creek was two-thirds below average.

The problems of drought are compounded by the fact that water use increases as natural recharge decreases. In a normal year, about 34.6 million gallons a day are drawn from the county’s aquifers. That number increased to 50.3 million gallons a day during the 2005 drought.

Huntley recently reported that the 1.5 million gallons a day it pumps on average jumped to 4.5 million gallons a day in June. Crystal Lake typically pumps 4.5 million gallons a day, but now is averaging 6.5 million to 7.5 million gallons a day, Public Works Director Victor Ramirez said at the summit.

Illinoi does not have as many limits on drawing groundwater as other states – the general rule is that the person or entity that owns the well and draws the water controls the amount.

Ed Coggin, senior project engineer for HR Green Inc., a McHenry engineering and consulting firm, called Illinois something of the “Wild West” when it comes to laws managing groundwater supply.

While county government has no jurisdiction over water use, municipalities that own wells and pump water do. Many of those with water management ordinances already have imposed limits.

Crystal Lake’s water use currently is “yellow” on its water traffic light – customers can use water for outdoor purposes such as watering lawns or washing cars in the mornings and evenings on even-odd days that correspond to their address.

The next step, condition red, would ban outdoor watering until further notice.

Algonquin’s water conservation ordinance, which is held up as a model by county water planners, is more proactive. In the summer months, water rates triple once customers exceed 18,000 gallons in a month.

Like Crystal Lake, the village currently is limiting watering to even-odd days. But Public Works Director Robert Mitchard said he is preparing to ask the village board to go to the next condition, which would limit watering to mornings only.

The fact that about a dozen communities in McHenry County have no water restriction ordinances chafes Mitchard and others. He said work has to be done to get those communities to “step up to the plate.”

“It’s a regional problem,” Mitchard said. “Aquifers don’t follow municipal boundaries.”

When will it rain?

There is a 30 percent chance of rain Saturday, and a slight chance Sunday through Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

On the Net

You can conserve water with measures as simple as not leaving water running during teeth brushing or shaving. Learn more at