Chicago to restart voluntary water meter installations after three-year pause amid concern about elevated lead levels

A new state law kicks off Jan. 1 requiring lead service lines be replaced with non-lead lines when a meter is installed. That increases the cost of the meter installation, so the city is rushing to install as many meters as possible by year’s end.

SHARE Chicago to restart voluntary water meter installations after three-year pause amid concern about elevated lead levels
A water meter in the basement of a Chicago home.

A water meter in the basement of a Chicago home.

Sun-Times file

After a three-year pause to determine the cause of elevated lead levels in Chicago’s drinking water, Mayor Lori Lightfoot got the go-ahead Wednesday to resume installation of water meters to 180,000 households without them.

The City Council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations re-started the program after Water Management Commissioner Andrea Cheng assured alderpersons the installations would be accompanied by significant safeguards.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel came under fire for not telling owners of all 165,000 homes with water meters that a “small subset” of metered homes had tested positive for elevated lead levels.

After Lightfoot took office, another 210 homes were tested before and after meters were installed with results the mayor considered “statistically significant” enough to halt the voluntary installation of water meters.

Since then, the Department of Water Management has tested a new, ultra-sonic water meter and conducted another study. The new meter made virtually no difference in lead levels compared to the old one. Nor did it help maintain the “corrosion coating within the pipe.”

The new study concluded that, although a decrease in water usage is “not the main cause of increased lead, water usage is a strong driver of elevated lead levels.”

It is believed that installation disturbed the inside of the pipes, which over time built up a coating of corrosion. Using more water increases the process of getting those disturbed particles out of the pipes.

The study concluded residents “did not flush as instructed” after installation. That referred not to flushing toilets, but instead was about turning on showers and faucets to get the “disturbed particles out.” Residents also were “not accurate about how much they flushed.”

“At those homes that flushed, flushing lowered lead levels in first and 2nd liter samples after meter installation,” officials said in a presentation to committee members.

Armed with that information, restarting the 13-year-old program known as “MeterSave” will include:

• Mandatory flushing performed by the contractor — not the homeowner.

• Water testing before installation for homes where the meter is installed outside the home, in a vault.

• Continued water testing after meter installation.

• Continued distribution of water pitcher filters for all homes.

• Letters to residents whose meters show very low water usages “to ask them to flush, increase their water usage or get their filter from” Water Management.

Cheng told alderpersons that time is of the essence to resume voluntary meter installations and get in as many as possible by Jan. 1.

That’s when a new state law kicks in requiring lead service lines to be replaced with non-lead lines during any meter installation. That will slow down installations, and make them more expensive.

That requirement already has been postponed once after the city “pleaded” with the state for mercy. Any further delay is unlikely, Cheng said.

“We haven’t been able to get any budging from that so far, beyond the additional year we’ve already got,” the commissioner said.

“Every month that we wait to start, we lose at least 600 meter installations.”

When MeterSave started in 2009, Chicago had 316,000 unmetered homes. Now, it’s about 180,000 homes.

The cost to install a meter inside a home is $1,300. That rises to $3,700 for installing a meter outside a home in a vault.

If 15% of the installations require vaults, the $15 million low-interest loan from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency should bankroll 10,000 installations by Jan. 1.

Meter installations will start with the 11,000 people still on the waiting list.

After that, the city will move on to new volunteers lured by an average 50% reduction in the combined water-sewer bill and the longstanding guarantee that, for the next seven years, the bill will “never be higher than it would have been without a meter.”

In 2019, the average annual cost for a metered home was $670, compared to $1,166 for a home without a meter.

Since the savings is so significant, the city plans to prioritize homes with water debt, Cheng said.

A presentation distributed to the Budget Committee included a chart on meters and water affordability. It noted in residents in majority-Black census tracts spend 19% of their income on water service.

That compares to 10% in census tracts with a majority of Asian American residents, 7% in majority Latino tracts and just 4% in areas with a white majority.

“We’ve been hearing from our residents about the cost of water,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), Lightfoot’s former City Council floor leader.

“It’s incumbent on us to get as any of these meters installed as quickly as possible.”

Cheng said the city’s designated contractor, augmented by in-house crews, will “hit the ground running on June 1,” hoping to complete the entire waiting list by Dec. 31.

“The nice thing is, weather matters less,” she said. “It’s an indoor thing.”

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