It’s the end of Chicago’s water rates as we know them, and I feel fine

By Josh Ellis.  This post originally appeared on

Embedded within the Emanuel Administration’s proposed 2012 Budget is set of rate increases that will bring the price we pay for water services much closer to the actual cost of providing them.  Not surprisingly, when revenues are less than costs, you either have to borrow money from somewhere else or defer maintenance and system improvements.  Chicago has had to do some of both, and the result is an under-performing infrastructure system and a regional populace (remember, Chicago treats and pumps water to dozens upon dozens of suburban communities) that undervalues the services they rely on.  So the proposed rate increases — assuming the new revenue is used to reinvest in our water system — are both justified and overdue.

Here are some good ol’ hard truths when it comes to the City of Chicago’s water and sewer services:

  • The City of Chicago alone has approximately 4,200 miles of water mains, and about the same for sewer pipes (which ultimately connect to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s system).
  • Of those water mains, about 900 miles are more than a century old, and there are about 750 miles of sewer pipes of a comparable age… most of which were designed to last 80-100 years.
  • Presently the City is able to replace about 45 miles of pipe a year… so the 900 miles of oldest pipe would take 20 years, during which time every other part of the system would continue to age.  It costs about $2 million to replace a mile of pipe.
  • Leaky pipes, which are inevitable with age, result in astounding amounts of water loss, which is a waste of the energy and chemicals used in treatment and pumpage.  The City has invested a fair amount in leak detection and repair in the past decade, and reduced its water loss considerably, but there is still a way to go and leak detection is something you need to do on a regular basis.
  • An over-abundance of stormwater entering the sewer system contributes to overflows during even moderate storms, leading to contamination of our waterways and flooding in basements. A combination of investments in green infrastructure, improvements to the performance and capacity of sewer lines, and a cominbation of water conservation and efficiency (so there’s less water in the whole system), would help.
  • We still have about 310,000 single family and two-flat homes without water meters. Without meters, residents have no real concept of how much water they use, and thus reduced incentive to conserve.. but adding meters to homes isn’t free.

All told, the increase in water and sewer rates is justified and MPC supports it.  That said, the onus is on the City to be totally transparent about how the additional revenue is used.  A regularly updated and readily available scorecard (perhaps sent out with water bills?) detailing miles of pipe replaced, leaks repaired, reductions in water loss, and a few other key indicators would go a long way toward demonstrating that all this is worth it.

It wouldn’t hurt if a portion of the generated revenue were reserved to help non-profit organizations and low-income households invest in water efficiency measures, on-site green infrastructure, and plumbing retrofits.

Moreover, don’t forget that if you live in one of those 310,000 homes without a meter, you can get one at  If you can monitor your water consumption and have a better sense of how much you’re using, you may well find that you end up using less.  Given lower total water use, even with the water rate increases you might well end up paying a bill comparable to your current one (or even smaller).

The rate increase will be felt beyond the city’s borders.  Every community that purchases water from the City of Chicago will see the cost of acquiring water increase, but in reality the pipe network is all one big system.  Inefficiency and ill repair at one end affect performance and reliability at the other, regardless of where those ends are.  The City of Chicago doesn’t really have a choice here; due to state statute dating to 1889, Chicago has to charge customer utilities the same price for water as city consumers.  It was intended to keep Chicago from charging exorbinant prices to suburban customers, but it also prevents the City from offering an sort of discount as well.  In either case, water services throughout the region have been underpriced for decades, and now with higher rates throughout the region, more people and businesses will have to think a little harder about how much water they really need, ways to conserve or be more efficient, and so on.  When the price of water increases, investment in things like rainwater harvesting systems starts to be more attractive.

One could have an argument about whether water should be free… but there’s no argument about pipes, pumps, treatment plants, labor crews, street repairs, water meters, rain barrels, nuts, bolts, chlorine, and so on.  They aren’t free.  They’re just not.  For years we have undervalued the systems involved in providing ourselves with safe, clean water and then disposing of dirty water.  The result is an old, leaky system.  Chicago deserves better than that, but we’ll only get what we’re willing to pay for.  I am willing to pay my share to have a high level of service and an infrastructure system that runs well and protects the environment.

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