An award-winning Illinois water treatment plant succeeds with source water protection and through public education outreach to the farm community.


The team at the Joseph Donovan Regional Water Treatment Plant is serious about source water protection. Their efforts have helped make the Kankakee River one of the cleanest rivers in the Midwest.

Along with the plant’s owner, Aqua Illinois, the team in Kankakee works to maintain and enhance the river water quality through education and outreach. They have formed and maintained alliances with local groups, organizations and government agencies to protect the river as a water source and a natural resource for the entire region.

For the team’s continuous efforts, the plant won the AWWA Illinois Section 2015 Source Water Protection Award in the large system category.

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First filtration plant

The 22 mgd (design) Joseph Donovan plant was built in 1886 as part of the Kankakee Water Company and was the first filtration plant in Illinois (1932). Today, the plant uses lime softening to treat an average of 11 to 13 mgd. Major equipment includes:

  • Raw clarifier, primary clarifier and two secondary clarifiers (Evoqua)
  • Lime slakers (Chemco)
  • High- and low-service pumps from Peerless Pump (Grundfos Pumps)
  • Chemical pumps (Lutz-JESCO; LMI Pumps)
  • Wallace & Tiernan chlorinators (Evoqua)
  • Chlorine scrubber (Purafil)
  • 17 conventional sand filters
  • Sludge pumps (Crane Pumps & Systems)
  • SCADA system with Modicon (Schneider Electric) and Allen-Bradley (Rockwell Automation) PLCs

Sludge from the plant is pumped into a 13-acre lime storage lagoon and applied to farm fields. The plant has upgraded pumps and motors over the years, but there has not been a major expansion since 1932. The lime slakers and carbon dioxide feeder will be upgraded in 2016.

Maintaining the river

Plant staff members are active in making sure the Kankakee River remains exceptionally clean. Although agricultural runoff can contain nitrates, that has not been an issue. “Nitrates aren’t found in the raw river water at levels that require treatment because we’ve been successful in reducing them at the source through our work with the farm community,” says Kevin Culver, a regional environmental compliance manager with Aqua Illinois.

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Farmer Jeff O’Connor conducted a recent study on the benefits of a cover crop to reduce nitrate in the river. O’Connor is chairman of the Kankakee County Soil & Water Conservation District and a director on the Kankakee County Farm Bureau. Aqua Illinois’ Culver and plant lead operator Don Denault helped with the study by gathering and testing samples of the runoff water.

“The study compared the level of nitrates discharged from field drainage tiles into a receiving stream from the same farm field, a portion of which was seeded with a cover crop,” says Melissa Kahoun, area manager with Aqua Illinois, Kankakee and Will counties.

When Denault tested the water, the data showed 56 to 74 percent less nitrate in the tile from the portion of the field with the cover crop. Says Culver, “Continued research and public education are planned, with a focus on efficient use of farm chemicals, both from an economic and environmental standpoint.”

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Culver volunteers with an organization called River Watch, collecting data once a year on aquatic insects and other macroinvertebrates in the river that are indicators of water quality. The program trains citizen scientists to collect the data that determines water quality trends. Water level, temperature and weather can affect the macroinvertebrate population, so Culver samples in May or June at four sites in the Kankakee watershed. He has been doing this since 2001 and has involved his whole family.

Aqua Illinois staff members also help with an annual Kankakee River cleanup every fall. The cleanup is part of the Northern Illinois Anglers Association’s Adopt-A-River program, in which Aqua has been involved for 13 years.

Using ingenuity

The plant has also faced its share of technical challenges. A reconfiguration (straightening) of the Kankakee River in Indiana caused faster flow and the migration of sand in the riverbed throughout Kankakee County and areas downstream.

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“For years, our staff and environmental advocates witnessed the sand encroachment and the impacts to drinking water operations and the environment,” says Kahoun. “Throughout the mid-2000s, Aqua dredged the areas around its deep-water intake in the Kankakee, only to have major flooding wash even more sand into the intake.”

The plant operations, led by Denault and Culver, came up with a plan to raise the intake structure above the sand bed. They worked with a contractor to remove the structure from the river, extend it 5 feet and reinstall it without interrupting service to customers.

It wasn’t easy. The structure’s base, which had not been exposed for generations because of sand infill, was much different than the plans had indicated. This required field revisions and other changes. The river froze in early December 2008, slowing down the project. The job was finally completed nearly a year later.

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“Because of the ingenuity and dedication of our employees, the total investment in the project was limited to about $180,000, which is dramatically less than a new intake structure would have cost,” says Kahoun.

Ample experience

This dedication sets the group apart and is a key to their success. Eight operators and a laborer operate and maintain the plant. Besides Kahoun, who has been with Aqua for six years, and Denault (Class A water treatment certification, 39 years), this highly experienced team includes:

  • Mike Stone, production manager, five months
  • Water treatment technicians Sean Culver (three years), Ulysses Hudson (35 years), Gary Huggins (31 years), Bruce McCue (31 years), Donald Rapier (39 years), Michael Scarcliff (11 years) and Andrew Stanek (six years)
  • Laborer Chris Quillman (two years)

All water treatment technicians are certified, and most hold a Class A (highest) water treatment license. Stanek, who also holds a Class 4 sewer license, operates both the water and wastewater treatment plants in Kankakee County.

The team is especially proud of its 2016 Best Tasting Water in the South Suburbs award from the South Suburban Water Works Association. “This award is one of their greatest successes,” says Kahoun. “They take a lot of pride in the water quality.”

Says Denault, “Even with new water quality regulations over the years, we’ve met all the requirements for more than 30 years. The only violation we have had is for missing one sample.”

To help meet the demand for treatment operators as current ones retire, Aqua has launched an employee development plan to identify those interested in learning about treatment.

“Supervisory staff meet annually with each employee and identify and plan for the training needed to eventually fill a role in the treatment process,” says Kahoun. “We also emphasize cross-training, and one distribution employee is currently being cross-trained at the water plant.”

Future improvements

Looking ahead, a pharmaceutical company’s plant expansion will affect the treatment plant. “By the end of 2017, CSL Behring will have completed a major expansion of its Kankakee plant,” says Kahoun. “They currently process 4 million liters of plasma a year, and will be able to process 16 million liters a year. Water demand could increase by 1.2 mgd, for a total maximum demand of 1.8 mgd.”

To meet that need and serve the expanding population of Kankakee County, the plant will undergo a $15 million upgrade over the next year. Improvements will increase plant reliability and add redundancy to key treatment processes. Upgrades include:

  • 12 mgd ClariCone system (CB&I)
  • Improvements to the carbon dioxide feed system and a new carbonic acid feed system (Tomco2 Systems, 50-ton tanks)
  • Two new 2,000-pound-per-day lime slakers (RDP Technologies)
  • Filter valve and actuator replacement
  • Anionic polymer feed system

In 2017, the treatment plant will add the city of University Park to its system. A 15-mile pipeline from Grant Park to University Park will be built at a cost of up to $18 million. University Park’s water demand from the Silurian Dolomite Aquifer is about 1.2 mgd, with a peak of 3.4 mgd. Its residents have complained about water hardness and iron. By tying into the Kankakee plant, they will enjoy softened, filtered water.

“University Park was talking about building a new treatment plant, but the cost was prohibitive. We have an unlimited water source with the Kankakee River, so it makes sense to bring the pipeline to them,” says Kahoun.

These changes will no doubt affect the Kankakee water plant team, but Denault isn’t concerned. “I’ve been picking other operators’ brains about the operation and challenges of the ClariCones, but as far as training goes, it’s still lime softening,” he says. “Also, we upgraded our SCADA system two years ago and we’re very happy with it. We can remotely monitor our plant, and we’ll also be able to see the University Park system.”

Kahoun says her team is eager for the new technology included in the Joseph Donovan plant expansion: “The operators are thrilled to get the ClariCone clarifiers, and they’re excited about learning how to use the new system to provide even better service to our customers. Treating and distributing drinking water is a significant responsibility that takes dedication, training and skill. Our operators welcome the challenges our plant expansion will bring, and I know they’ll continue to excel.”


Reaching out

At the Joseph Donovan Regional Water Treatment Plant, community outreach and education is a big priority. Plant owner Aqua Illinois encourages outreach as a way to teach the community about issues like watershed protection.

The plant team conducts tours for small groups and officials. Water treatment plant area manager Melissa Kahoun and Aqua Illinois regional environmental compliance manager Kevin Culver take part in various career days with schools and give classroom presentations on request.

In 2015, Aqua Illinois won the Youth Outreach Award from AWWA Illinois Section. Says Kahoun, “We are an active participant in the Coalition for Hope and Excellence in Education (CHEE), and we set up source water protection booths at community events and outdoor shows.” The company also judges the Envirothon high school environmental education competition.

“For more than 100 years, Kankakee families and employers have received high-quality filtered, softened water from the Kankakee River,” says Kahoun. “Community outreach and education have been essential to preserving the river. After all, that’s the only way we can protect our watershed and our source water for the next 100 years.”

Outreach also raises awareness of career opportunities in the water treatment industry. “It takes a dedicated individual to ensure safe drinking water for tens of thousands of people every day,” says Kahoun. “Aqua is meeting that demand by continually investing in our staff and maintaining and improving our facilities.”


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