Community gardeners eagerly waiting to tend their plots as the weather began warming up this spring say the city has blocked their access to low-cost water unless they pay thousands of dollars to use the same nearby fire hydrants they’ve tapped for years.
The new restrictions put in place by the Chicago Department of Water Management were created to prevent water contamination, but the prices have been crippling to gardens around the city, especially those in communities where fresh produce is already scarce.
Mekazin Alexander said in previous years it was easy to obtain the permit needed to use the city’s fire hydrant for her garden in Englewood. She would apply for the permit in person and simply pick up the key to use the nearby hydrant and a backflow device used to protect the city’s water supply.
“This year I went online to fill out the application and I was denied immediately,” Alexander said. “I was surprised, I thought I did something wrong, so I applied again — and I was denied again.”
Alexander said the city was requiring her to now have a device known as a reduce pressure zone unit — which is more effective at preventing backflow contamination. The device would need to be inspected by a certified plumber.
“It created a major shock and hardship for us,” Alexander said.
She now welcomes the rain — like the showers that swept through the area Thursday — because it means she doesn’t have to walk gallons of water from her home to her garden at 6914 S. Perry Ave.
“If it doesn’t rain, we are filling up like 30 gallons of water and carrying it to our garden,” Alexander said. “I’m an older person and I don’t look forward to carrying all these gallon bottles.” Not to mention the higher water bills at her home.
$3,000 or more in additional costs
Sean Ruane, executive director of Advocates for Urban Agriculture, a coalition of urban farms and community and school gardens, said new regulations as well as stricter enforcement of existing ones has led to a wave of denials for water permits by the Water Department this year. What’s more, to get reduced fees for water, the gardens have to register as nonprofits and pay those fees as well.
His group estimates community gardens will be forced to spend nearly $3,000 or more in costs to get the new valve installed, inspected, as well as additional fees. Most of these gardens, Ruane points out, are run by volunteers and aren’t making money.
“It’s incredibly unrealistic,” Ruane said.
What’s more, Ruane said the situation is especially problematic in African American and Latino communities, which are already dealing with food insecurity and have been disproportionately impacted by the novel coronavirus.
“We should have been consulted by the city and given ample time to respond and adapt,” he said.
Ruane said would like to see the city install a flat permit rate for urban farms and community gardens.
City hopes to meet with gardeners
Megan Vidis, spokeswoman for the Department of Water Management, said the city is committed to helping residents grow their own food, “particularly during this unprecedented time.”
Any groups, Vidis said, can use the hydrant for water if they pull the appropriate permit, but only registered nonprofits are eligible for reduced water fees.
“The mandated use of Reduced Pressure Zone units is meant to ensure the safety of Chicago’s potable water system while protecting against the possibility of contaminated water backflow,” Vidis said.
The city is hoping to meet with advocacy groups and gardeners in the coming weeks to review the costs of hydrant access.
That can’t come soon enough for Cordia Pugh, who oversees the Englewood Veteran’s Garden at 1728 W. 57th St. She said the process to get a permit this year was so difficult with paperwork that they just aborted the process. Now they are using water from a nearby garden.
“We now have so many barriers in the application process and the city needs to reevaluate the whole thing,” Pugh said. “In this climate, in particular, I would hope the city would be more considerate.”
Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides. Sam Cholke is a Chicago-based freelance writer.