EDITORIAL: Leaky water mains drain money from poorer suburbs the most

SHARE EDITORIAL: Leaky water mains drain money from poorer suburbs the most

Dan Becktel, a utility worker with the La Grange Public Works Department, pauses while digging out the area around an 8-inch water main break in 2014 on South La Grange Road. | Sun-Times Media

Paying more for water, that most basic requirement of life, is another hidden cost of poverty in many Chicago suburbs.

It works this way:

Poorer communities often have crumbling old water mains that leak horribly. The pipes must be repaired or replaced, but the towns can’t afford to do so. The pipes continue to leak, night and day, wasting so much water that the average homeowner’s water bill goes way up.

The Illinois Legislature can do something about it. It can make funding for water main repairs a priority when it puts together, and hopefully passes, a big capital bill — proposed legislation that would finance major infrastructure repairs.

According to the Citizens Utility Board, Chicago area municipalities last year lost 25 billion gallons — about $9 million worth of water — because of leaky pipes. The biggest losses were in hard-pressed communities served by the most deteriorating water lines.

A Chicago Tribune investigation in 2017 found that residents of lower-income suburbs and towns paid up to six times more for water than residents of the wealthiest suburbs and towns. And communities with majority African American populations paid a monthly water bill that was 20% higher than communities with majority white populations.

The problem has only grown as Chicago has raised the price for the Lake Michigan water it sells to the suburbs. Chicago has gone to court to force such municipalities as Dolton, Harvey and Robbins to pay up for the water they use.

This has led to another bill, introduced by state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago. He wants state government to document disparities in water rates in hopes of upping the need for state spending to update old water systems.

The legislation, which already has passed in the state Senate, would require the the University of Illinois Chicago Government Finance Research Center and the Illinois Department of Public Health to issue reports listing the reasons for increasing water rates; any evidence of inappropriate rate-setting, and what challenges water rates pose to economically disadvantaged communities.

The first report, covering northeastern Illinois, would be due on Dec. 1, 2021. A second report, covering the entire state, would be due a year later.

From 2005 to 2015, Chicago tripled the price it charges other communities for water, according to a WBEZ report, and it has increased the price again since then. This has prompted some customers to shop elsewhere. Morton Grove, Niles and Lincolnwood decided to start buying their water from Evanston instead.

But many of the towns that struggle the most don’t have access to a cheaper source of water.

It is unconscionable that poorer people must pay more for water because billions of gallons go to waste. Lawmakers need to help them, before more money goes down the drain.


Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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