CHAMPAIGN — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun seeking public comment following its preliminary approval of local officials' request to add another layer of protection to the Mahomet Aquifer.
This week's announcement that the EPA was considering approval of a "sole-source aquifer" designation for the underground flow that provides drinking water for as many as 750,000 central Illinois residents was a big step for local officials and activists who are looking to add another layer of federal protection for the Mahomet Aquifer.
The next step is a three-month public comment period before the EPA considers final approval. If the "sole-source" application is approved, the Mahomet Aquifer would be the only one in the state with such protection.
The "sole-source" designation would add a layer of review to any federally funded project over the aquifer to ensure that the above-ground project will not affect the below-ground water source. Projects that are not using federal money would not be subject to the extra review.
Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said "we always want to be conscious about government regulations" but said protecting fresh water sources is one of the most important functions of government.
"Without a fresh water source, we have nothing," Gerard said. "All you have to do is look to West Virginia to see how catastrophic carelessness can become."
Gerard was referring to the situation near Charleston, W.Va., where about two months ago a riverside chemical storage tank leaked and contaminated the water supply for about 300,000 people in and around the state's capital.
To receive "sole-source" status, officials need to prove that an aquifer provides at least 50 percent of the drinking water for a given region. A groundwater hydrologist consulting the city on the matter has said the aquifer is the source of nearly 100 percent of the drinking water in the region.
"It provides 100 percent for us and is the secondary source for a lot of communities," Gerard said.
A number of central Illinois government agencies are splitting the estimated $55,000 cost of the sole-source aquifer petition, which they first submitted in December 2012.
According to the EPA, the aquifer system is the source of approximately 53 million gallons of water every year for 120 public water systems and thousands of rural wells that serve about a half million people.
More than half of the population in East Central Illinois relies on the Mahomet Aquifer system as a source of drinking water, according to the EPA.
The public comment period, which began Thursday, will include two public meetings where written and oral comments will be accepted. The first will be at 7:30 p.m. May 13 at the Hilton Garden Inn, 1501 S. Neil St., C. The second is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. May 14 at the Morton Park District's Freedom Hall, 349 Birchwood St., Morton.
Informational sessions before the public hearings will run from 6:30 to 7:15 p.m. on both nights.
If nothing else, Gerard said he's glad the process has drawn media coverage and interest from different groups in the community.
"I think it's really tantamount to our overall mission to have as many people as possible, if not everyone, understand the enormity of the importance of the aquifer," he said.