Municipalities will need to (eventually) invest in aging water lines

By: Christopher Ryan Crisanti

A recent front-page story from The Chicago Tribune noted that nearly 8 of every 10 residents live in communities with high exposure to lead in their tap water from very old and depreciating service line pipes.

Many, if not nearly all, of pipes in Illinois were installed over 100 hundred years ago and made of lead. While the accomplishment can be regarded as a modern marvel, as millions were able to receive water inside their homes, public managers over the years have discovered that specific levels of lead parts per billion (ppb) can be dangerous and unhealthy, especially for pregnant women and children.

The discoveries prompted Congress in 1986 to pass legislation banning the construction of lead water pipes. The Chicago City Council followed suite, mainly because the building code at the time required installation of lead pipes by union plumbers.

The ordinance solved only the first part of the problem, with the second being what to do with all of the remaining pipes. Nearly 26 years later, city officials looked to address the issue. Last September, Mayor Lightfoot launched a program to replace lead pipes, at an inexpensive price tag of about $8.5 billion.

The Tribune story has again brought the issue back to center. While the city of Chicago has shown an attempt to mitigate the public health crisis, other Illinois municipalities will need to look into maintenance of pipes either because of the ppb levels in their water, aging pipes, or both.

Municipalities must comply with federal controls to determine the level of lead exposure in pipes and help keep their communities safe. The Safe Drinking and Water Act of 1974 requires water suppliers to publish an annual report detailing water quality in their community. Additionally, the Lead and Cooper Rule of 1991 requires municipalities to monitor lead exposure in water and replace if levels are too high.

The most recent Consumer Confidence Report for Countryside, annually published in conjunction with McCook and Chicago, detected no significant levels of ppb in water lines. The same is true for other southwest communities, such as Bridgeview, Brookfield, Lyons, and La Grange, according to those communities Consumer Confidence Reports. 

Under the Lead and Cooper rule, municipalities are required to sample homes and if more than 10% of those sampled contain at least 15 ppb, they are required to take action to correct the issue. The problem, however, is that the testing standards set relatively small guidelines on the process and actual sample itself. In other words, the smaller the sample size, the greater likelihood the municipality is able to meet the federal standards.

That does not take away the fact that for other communities, the situation is more dire compared to that of our Southwest Suburban enclave. Unusually high levels of lead exposure (at least 5 ppb or greater) have been reported primarily in West and South Suburban communities, such as Oak Park, River Forest, River Grove, Elmwood Park, University Park and East Chicago.

If potential exposure to dangerous levels of lead is not reason enough to replace pipes, some municipalities are looking to do so because the pipes are, well, just old.

The village of Brookfield is currently deliberating to raise their water rate from $11.47 per 1,000 gallons to $13.50 to help fund replacement of aging pipes. Additionally, the Brookfield-North Riverside Water Commission in 2018 completed a supplemental water line to help back up the main pipeline built back in 1938.

With so many pipes being constructed 100 years ago, municipalities need an upgrade. According to The Tribune, Illinois has “more service lines made of toxic metal than any other state.” Despite the regulations, the city of Chicago still has “more than any other city.”

The good news is that help is on the way. President Biden’s infrastructure program is set to earmark $45 billion to improve the nation’s water lines, although it is still undetermined how much the state will receive. Nevertheless, the state will receive money necessary to finally make such improvements.

People who do not understand the functioning of government often repeat that government should run like a household. Well, the pipes are depreciating and a fix is needed.

This piece was also published in the May 6 edition of The Regional News.

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