Chicago’s next mayor has water problems to fix

Replacing lead water pipes and protecting the Lake Michigan shoreline are just two challenges the next mayor will face.

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Construction crews put a boring device into place to install a new water pipe and replace an old lead pipe in the Oakland neighborhood, Nov. 30, 2022.

Construction crews put a boring device into place to install a new water pipe and replace an old lead pipe in the Oakland neighborhood, Nov. 30, 2022.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicagoans are fortunate to have our greatest resource — fresh water — right in our backyard in the form of Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, the Des Plaines River and the Calumet River. Now the city is at the crossroads of water challenges that are bedeviling the Great Lakes region.

The upcoming mayoral election provides an opportunity for Chicago’s next leader to show us how they plan to solve four of the city’s biggest water problems.

Chicago has at least 387,000 lead service lines, the most of any city in the country. But to date, only 280 lines have been replaced. There is no argument anymore about whether they need to be replaced — we know there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. Replacement comes down to prioritization and leadership. State law gives the city a 50-year timeline to finish the job, which is a nonstarter.

Our next mayor should set a clear goal for the number of lines they plan to replace by the end of their first term, prioritize neighborhoods where data shows the greatest lead burden and follow through on their promises. With federal investments in water infrastructure now available at levels not seen since the 1970s through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, there is an opportunity to generate substantial employment and job training with investments that prioritize historically marginalized and disinvested communities. Let’s not miss the boat.

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But clean pipes alone don’t guarantee access to clean water. No one living next to the world’s largest source of surface freshwater should have to worry about affording drinking water, but unfortunately that is a reality many Chicagoans face. The largest water debt burden is held in communities of color, with the city’s least advantaged spending up to 19% of their household income on water. Chicago has already banned water shutoffs, which is a positive step we hope more cities emulate.

But we can do more by expanding access to the Utility Billing Relief program and eliminating any policies that lead to eviction, foreclosure or any other housing loss due to water debt.

Preventing flooding, protecting Lake Michigan shoreline

Decades of construction have thankfully minimized sewage flowing into Lake Michigan, and reduced the amount entering our rivers. But simply put, flooded streets and basements are still too common when it rains. Basement backup means sewage in homes. Yuck. Flooding damages property, threatens health, and is a flashing alarm that our water infrastructure isn’t up to snuff.

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The communities most impacted by this are predominantly low-income and immigrant neighborhoods, and increased rain brought on by the climate crisis is already making this worse. The city needs a clear plan for making sure storms don’t damage peoples’ homes, the rivers and Lake Michigan. Chicago can dramatically increase its strategic investment in green, nature-based solutions, and should research the impacts of flooding in Chicago to guide equitable investments in future green and gray infrastructure.

Finally, water level changes on Lake Michigan are also becoming more extreme due to the climate crisis. You don’t have to have been here long to see it: We went from a record low in 2013 to record high in 2020. Unpredictability and rapid changes are the new normal.

Chicago depends on its crown jewel of a lakefront to attract workers, families, businesses, and conferences, but large chunks are incomplete and unprotected, leading to flooded neighborhoods and damaged property when the lake is high. The next mayor needs to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a pair of federal studies already underway and set the stage for rebuilding the neglected parts of Chicago’s shoreline. A world-class coastal city should have a shoreline that is resilient to climate change and healthy for the lake, minimizes flooding, and increases public access.

Leading on water at home will require tough choices and big investments. But delay means the problems just get worse and more expensive. The good news is that taking care of the resource we depend on for life every day is a unifying way to assure the physical and economic health of the millions of residents our mayoral candidates hope to lead. Chicago’s next mayor should accept the challenge of becoming a water leader for Chicago and for our shared waters across the Great Lakes.

Joel Brammeier is president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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