Lake County officials say changes are needed in light of the water system failure that interrupted service to 1,200 customers in and around Hawthorn Woods for several days over the Fourth of July holiday.
Aqua Illinois and its parent company publicly apologized and admitted mistakes after service was restored. But Lake County leaders say procedures to deal with potential future issues, including notifying first responders, should be mandated.
“There were a lot of things that went wrong here,” said Marah Altenberg, a county board members whose district includes a portion of Kildeer that was affected by a large water main break. Aqua customers were without drinkable water for days. “It’s up to us to see how we can make these private firms more accountable.”
The Aqua Illinois situation resurfaced this week with a presentation to a county board committee by Austin McFarlane, interim public works director.
Lake County contracts with Aqua for water service for the Glennshire and Forest Lake subdivisions in Hawthorn Woods, which represent about 300 of the 1,200 Aqua customers in that area.
McFarlane said Aqua got the alarm that water level had dropped, suggesting a problem with the system, but didn’t follow up or respond.
“The problem was compounded for Aqua by staffing issues and communication down the road that became more problematic,” he said.
McFarlane said water main breaks or other system issues happen and there must be a plan to react. Lake County public works, for example, has an operator on call after hours for every region it operates, and a supervisor on call for its entire system.
Aqua Illinois admitted in a public meeting July 31 its team didn’t recognize the severity of the emergency and didn’t effectively communicate with customers and local officials.
The utility company said it is taking steps to prevent a future crisis, such as making alarms more sensitive, creating a remote monitoring system for its plant, improving training and increasing system capacity faster than originally scheduled.
The company also has created an online communications advisory council with Hawthorn Woods-area residents. The first meeting is planned in September.
“They have admitted there are some weaknesses there that need to be addressed, but per our agreement, we can’t mandate that,” McFarlane said. “To make changes, we need to take a look legislatively to see what we can do to force them make those changes.”
As a state-regulated private entity, Aqua Illinois is responsible to the Illinois Commerce Commission, explained Lake County Administrator Gary Gibson.
The commission’s staff is gathering information on the July water system failure and Aqua’s response, spokesperson Cayli Baker said Wednesday. An internal report is being compiled to help determine next steps, she said.
Any potential formal actions by the commission will follow the assessment, Baker said. She emphasized Aqua will receive feedback on improvement regardless of whether formal action is taken.
County officials said state legislators are involved in unspecified discussions.
McFarlane said connecting Glennshire and Forest Lake to the Countryside Lake water system — a separate system of four wells — is a short-term solution. Connecting with a Lake Michigan water system could be a long-term answer, he said.