We need to remediate our pervasive lead pipes and adopt rates, policies and programs for water service that protect all Chicagoans. The City of Chicago has a significant freshwater advantage over many of its national and international counterparts. Yet we risk not capitalizing on this resource due to critical water infrastructure and service issues: lead in drinking water and water affordability. These two critical issues also underscore systemic inequities in our city—thus taking action on our water issues will also improve quality of life and trust in government.
Lead in Drinking Water
There is no safe level of lead exposure. Exposure can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in young children who are most susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning, which can lead to decreased IQ, hyperactivity, hearing problems, stunted growth, and learning disabilities. In adults, lead exposure can increase the risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, kidney failure, and reproductive problems for both men and women. Recent water testing results within the City of Chicago have raised significant public concern, particularly because Chicago has more lead service lines than any other city and actually required them by law until 1986, when U.S. Congress finally banned the use of this toxic material in service lines and other plumbing. However, remediation of this toxic material was not required, so lead pipes, fixtures and solder will remain a public health concern so long as this legacy material remains in use.
To address this critical public health issue and demonstrate national leadership in 21st Century water management, the City of Chicago must:
Recommendation: Inventory its legacy lead service line infrastructure to understand the scale of the problem
Recommendation: Create and implement a lead service line replacement plan and program
Recommendation: Proactively structure the program to account for disparities in ability to pay, solutions for rental and affordable housing tenants, language barriers, and more. Additionally, the City should support State of Illinois revenue and funding solutions for this immense lead challenge.
The Mayor’s Office will not have to bear the cost and administration of these solutions alone: the State of Illinois is considering measures to survey lead pipes and equitably fund their removal. Senator Steans has introduced SB1532, which tasks the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to create a low-income lead pipe removal program. Representative D’Amico has proposed HB2128, which would create a tax credit for homeowners who replace lead service lines. Finally, the capital bill may include money for lead pipe replacement.
Water Service Affordability + Shutoffs
According to a recent American Public Media story, the cost of water for an average family of four in Chicago nearly tripled between 2007 and 2018—from $178 per year to $576. While rates in Chicago have gone up for often justified reasons—such as replacing century old pipes and water service infrastructure—our existing water rates are regressive in nature, and have impacted lower-income residents the most. American Public media also reported that water service shut-offs have disproportionately high concentrations in lower-income and majority black and Latino neighborhoods. The city’s policies on shut-offs are draconian and lack transparency, flexibility or protection for our residents. As water rates continue to increase in order to repair and replace our old, crumbling infrastructure (including lead pipes), policies and programs that support all Chicagoans must be enacted.
To address this growing equity issue, Chicago should:
Recommendation: Undertake a study to determine a fairer water rate structure that alleviates regressivity.
Recommendation: Rework the city’s current water shut-off policies and available affordability programs
First 100 Day Actions
- By way of executive order or legislative action by City Council, create a lead service line remediation plan and program that includes producing an inventory, providing robust public education and implementing a variety of funding/financing strategies.
- Establish an Advisory Group to help guide the vision, direction and development of a citywide lead service line remediation plan and program that includes community groups, water industry professionals, public health experts, and civic organizations.
- Issue an executive order to undertake a study to determine a better rate setting approach that helps alleviate regressive issues related to paying for water service. This study should include exploring tiered water rates by usage, as well as water rates based-on income.
- Establish an Advisory Group that includes community groups, water industry professionals, public health experts, and civic organizations to help guide the above study on improved, equitable approaches to water rate setting.
First Year Actions and Goals
- Prioritize coordination across city departments (including DWM, DPD, DPH and Department of Finance) to identify areas of particular risk to lead exposure e.g., older housing stock; low-income neighborhoods; homes with young children and elderly, etc.
- Examine ways to reduce the cost of a lead service line replacement such as waiving city permitting fees and bundling contracting for this type of construction, implementing non-regressive revenue streams, and utilizing the State Revolving Fund (SRF) to help fund lead service line replacement.
- Adopt a more transparent approach to addressing the concerns of citizens and providing helpful educational materials and discounted (or free) water filters.
- Complete the water rate study and announce next steps for rolling out a new water rate setting approach.
- Prioritize coordination across city departments (including DWM, DPH and Department of Finance) to identify improved programs and policies to avoid water service shut-off that work in true partnership with customers rather than against them.
First Term Goals
- Achieve rollout of, and measurable progress on the City of Chicago’s lead service line remediation plan and program.
- Implement new water rate approach that is no longer regressive.
- Implement new water shut-off policies and available affordability programs in order to avoid expensive service termination (which is costly for both the customer and the city), and support residents in a more humane and transparent approach.
Why the time is right
The risk to our health and the financial well-being of our most vulnerable citizens is too high. Federal- and State-level policies and regulations are being created and enacted right now to address lead. The horror stories of our community members experiencing water shutoffs with high fees to have service restored is not acceptable. Chicago has the opportunity to be a place where our safe water wealth is enjoyed by all. In order to stay ahead of the curve and rebuild a bridge of trust that has been broken with its residents, the City of Chicago must demonstrate action now.
What it will take
In order to move forward, the City of Chicago will need proactively identify, discuss and provide transparency on the nature and scale of both of these problems. The city will need to roll out a lead service line remediation plan/program that considers 1) where risks are greatest, 2) how to remove barriers e.g., permitting processes, 3) how to pay: shared approaches, fee waivers, new, non-regressive revenue streams, grant programs for those most in need and at risk, etc. To address water affordability, the City of Chicago will need to take a transparent look at what the full system costs are before setting a new water rate structure that 1) ensures safe drinking water service, and 2) supports equity so that those with the least are not overly burdened by regressive rate setting practices.
Alignment with other Initiatives and Priorities of City or Partners
The City of Chicago should actively participate in and support the efforts currently being created and enacted at the federal- and state-level to address lead in drinking water. Additionally, there are a number of civic organizations, community groups as well as industry experts available to assist and partner with in developing a lead service line plan and program.
MPC, in partnership with Elevate Energy and the Illinois Indiana Sea Grant, will be releasing new findings that further underscore the affordability issue and identify solutions to protect residents.