Federal money to replace lead pipes is just a first step to cleaner drinking water in Chicago

An all-hands-on-deck approach is critical to ensuring all Chicagoans, and everyone across the Great Lakes region, has access to clean, safe, affordable drinking water.

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Chicago Department of Water Management employees work at the site of a water main break on North Nagle and West Catalpa avenues, Thursday morning, Jan. 31, 2019.

Chicago Department of Water Management employees work at the site of a water main break on Jan. 31, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Seven of the top 10 states with the most lead pipes carrying drinking water into homes are in the Great Lakes region, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Illinois and Chicago also have the dubious honors of being at the top of the lists as the state and city with the most lead pipes of anywhere in the country.

This means that millions of people drink and cook with water delivered through aging lead pipes. With water bills on the rise, many households are paying more for water that they don’t trust due to the threat of lead contamination. There is a sad irony to the fact that even though we sit on the shores of the largest freshwater lake system on Earth, residents may not be able to safely drink or afford the water coming from their taps.

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We are fortunate to have a champion in Congress who understands and is working on this issue: Sen. Tammy Duckworth held a hearing recently at the Shedd Aquarium to examine the implementation process of the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year, with $15 billion allocated for lead pipe removal, which her lead pipe replacement legislation was folded into.

As Duckworth said during the hearing, this money should be seen as a down payment. While it’s a big help, it’s only a first step, since estimated costs to replace all lead pipes in the country are between $45 and $60 billion.

A role for every level of government

To replace this toxic infrastructure, water policy leaders at all levels of government must prioritize equitable investment and affordability strategies. Great Lakes cities like Chicago have the opportunity to be national leaders in addressing the twin threats of lead contamination and rising water bills. As Justin Williams with Metropolitan Planning Council testified at the hearing, every level of government must play a part in ensuring adequate funding for lead pipe replacement and an implementation strategy everyone can afford.

The city has begun to tackle this legacy issue after decades of neglect, but progress has been slow. To maximize federal water infrastructure funding, the city should prioritize community input and accountability, cost efficiencies and coordinated capital planning, and expedited progress with equitable workforce development and affordability strategies. This will ensure residents don’t have to choose between clean water and affordable water bills. Investment in physical water infrastructure must be matched by an investment to build a diverse workforce equal to the task of modernizing our water systems, as Anthena Gore of Elevate shared in her testimony.

As Duckworth noted, the U.S. EPA’s first allocation of lead service line replacement funding from the infrastructure bill was based on an outdated formula: Illinois and other states with large lead pipe inventories did not receive funding commensurate with need. That funding gap is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars each year for Illinois alone, so it is critical that the EPA update their Drinking Water Needs Assessment formula to account for this discrepancy. Directing states to invest nearly half of the $15 billion from the infrastructure law for lead pipe removal into historically disadvantaged communities is a good first step.

When Illinois passed the Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act last year, it became the third state to require inventory of all lead pipes and a deadline for replacement. This is another great step, but Illinois has an opportunity to demonstrate additional leadership by implementing the new guidance on distributing funds equitably, building community partnerships, and using all tools available to meet or exceed replacement goals.

Most importantly, the work of all these entities can’t be siloed off from each other. An all-hands-on-deck approach is critical to ensuring all Chicagoans, and everyone across the Great Lakes region, has access to clean, safe, affordable drinking water. Half measures are not enough. We’re thrilled that there’s been so much investment made to clean up the Great Lakes, but, at the end of the day, if the water is contaminated on its way to the tap, we need to rethink how we are putting clean water dollars to work in our region.

Anna-Lisa Castle is Clean Water & Equity Policy Director at the Alliance for the Great Lakes,

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