Gov. Pat Quinn launched a $1 billion initiative Thursday to upgrade sewer lines, water mains and water treatment plants across Illinois, some of them badly eroded after more than 100 years of service.

Timing the announcement to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, Quinn described his administration's Clean Water Initiative as a jobs-creating effort to pull Illinois up from the nation's lower rungs in terms of water safety.

A recent federal Environmental Protection Agency assessment found that Illinois has the fourth-highest need in the country for drinking water infrastructure improvements. The state ranked sixth-highest in the need for wastewater infrastructure improvements, the assessment said.

"We have to make sure that our drinking water is safe, and so we have to invest in that," Quinn said during a news conference at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. "Our water mains and everything connected to drinking water, we have to make sure that it meets 21st century standards."

State officials said the initiative expands an existing program that offers low-interest loans to local governments seeking to avoid environmental hazards brought on by an aging infrastructure.

Those hazards surfaced in south suburban Crestwood, where village officials accused of neglecting leaking water mains now face federal charges alleging they allowed water from a contaminated well to enter the village's drinking water supply for two decades.

In Sauk Village, high levels of vinyl chloride were found recently in a village well, prompting municipal officials to offer residents free bottled water while that problem is addressed.

The existing loan program made $300 million available annually through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to improve municipal water safety, officials said. The state's finance authority is now leveraging a surplus built up in that program to issue $1 billion in bonds for the latest initiative.

The expanded effort would create 9,700 construction jobs, plus thousands more indirect jobs, Quinn's office said.

State officials said more than 350 local governments have expressed interest in participating in the loan program. Roughly $930 million in proposed projects are awaiting review, though the application process is still open, officials said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced plans to overhaul the city's massive water and sewer system, an initiative that would be paid for by higher water and sewer rates for residents. In 2009 the city received a $12.1 million loan from the state to replace deteriorating water mains.

Lisa Jackson, the federal EPA director, stood with Quinn at the news conference and praised those efforts.

In order to keep ahead of a deteriorating infrastructure, Illinois must invest $32 billion in improvements over the next 20 years, EPA officials said.

"One of the biggest challenges we face as a nation today ... is aging and outdated water infrastructure," Jackson said. "It's in dire need of improvement."

(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune