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Billions lost, million wasted in Chicago

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Steve Smiley points to a steady flow of water pouring into a playground in west suburban Maywood, convinced he knows the source, reported Chicago Tribune (US).

A cracked underground water main pipe, he said, allows water to seep into the basement of a city-owned building next door. It is then pumped into the playground.

Though Smiley has pointed out the problem to city officials, the leak has continued for years, with the water ultimately paid for by Maywood residents.

“Think about it,” said Smiley, the Park District’s building and grounds supervisor. “That may be your money.”

The trickle on the playground is a small part of what has become a river of wasted water in this village. Of the 946 million gallons that Maywood bought from Melrose Park in 2016, 367 million gallons, or 38.7 percent, never made it to taps, costing residents and businesses in this cash-strapped village nearly $1.7 million. Maywood residents pay one of the region’s highest water rates.

When asked by the Tribune about the high water-loss percentage, a Maywood official was pleasantly surprised, saying he thought the number was even worse.

Maywood is just part of a broader problem in the region. Drop by drop, more than 25 billion gallons of water drawn from Lake Michigan was lost in the Chicago area last year, an analysis by the Chicago Tribune has found.

A sprawling network of crumbling underground pipes allows water to surreptitiously seep into the soil before customers even turn on the faucet.

To conduct the first-of-its-kind analysis, the Tribune gathered reports on water loss and billing rates from 162 towns with publicly managed systems that draw from Lake Michigan, compared that data against the towns’ income and demographic information and interviewed dozens of residents, water officials and experts.

It found a system that forces residents of many towns like Maywood to pay for water they never use, saddling them with a perpetual cost while draining what is perhaps the region’s most precious resource.

Last year alone, northeast Illinois would have saved nearly $9.1 million if towns using Lake Michigan water had been held to the state’s water loss standard of 12 percent.

The cost falls disproportionately on low-income, minority communities, the Tribune found. While most towns in the area meet the state standard, a cohort of towns struggle with losses that are well above that standard, burdened with a persistent cost that can be difficult to escape without deep pockets and a comprehensive plan to fix it.

Among the Tribune’s findings:
Last year, eight towns surveyed by the Tribune — Hometown, East Hazel Crest, Posen, Burnham, Riverdale, Flossmoor, Lyons and Maywood — lost more than 30 percent of their water.

More than 1 in 4 towns in the region exceeded the 12 percent standard set by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Towns with majority-black populations lost an average of 18 percent of their water, compared to the region’s overall rate of 10 percent. These towns pay some of the highest rates for water in the area.

The losses exacted an insidious cost in town after town. In addition to the $1.66 million that Maywood residents paid for all of its wasted water in 2016, Hometown residents paid $163,000; Flossmoor, $846,000; East Hazel Crest, $198,000; Posen, $351,000; and Burnham, $257,000.

The burden of water loss placed on low-income towns contributes to a disparity in water rates around the Chicago region. The Tribune found that as water rates have surged in recent years, residents of the poorest communities paid higher water bills than those in wealthy towns and that financial pain fell disproportionately on residents of minority suburbs.

And there are few consequences for squandering large amounts of water. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, as prescribed by state law, regulates the use of Lake Michigan water by municipalities and sets the water loss standard. But regulators have never punished a town for excessive water loss beyond the current 12 percent standard.

Instead, the IDNR has taken a more collaborative approach. The agency urges towns to create plans for fixing their leaking pipes, but by its own acknowledgment does not levy penalties.

“I don’t know if anybody is going to deliberately say, ‘We like the system the way it is and we’re happy with it,’” said Dan Injerd, director of IDNR’s office of water resources. For some of the towns, he added, “you hear how much is going on and the challenges they face and you ask yourself, ‘Where is water infrastructure on that list of everything that’s happening?’ DNR is not going to be able to fix that.”

Municipal leaders, meanwhile, struggle to find the money and staffing to fix aging, leaky systems.

“It’s a painstaking cost and a painstaking process,” said Hometown Mayor Kevin Casey. “That’s not something I can pass on to residents. We’re a low-to-medium-income town, and I just can’t pass on a $1.4 million project to residents.”

Making matters worse, municipal leaders say, federal and state aid for water infrastructure has plunged in recent decades. For example, the federal contribution to total capital spending on water infrastructure nationwide has fallen from 63 percent in 1977 to 9 percent in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The result is that some elected leaders put off much-needed repairs, sometimes diverting water funds to pay for other city services. Other leaders simply punt the problem to future generations.

Whatever the reason, consumers end up paying the bill.

“Some utilities are masking their inefficiencies and are asking their ratepayers to cover it,” said Steve Cavanaugh, outreach chairman for the American Water Works Association’s water loss control committee. The nonprofit is concerned with water management solutions.

Conserving a prized resource

The squandering of public water comes at a time when Illinois and its Great Lakes neighbors have become fiercely protective of their bountiful source of freshwater.

In December 2008, eight states signed the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement that aims to protect the lakes and restricts the use of their water to people who live within or next to the basin. The compact followed a 2005 agreement that included the lake states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

But while the region’s leaders have put strict limits on who can access their prized resource, they are not always so disciplined about their own standards.

“There is nothing more hypocritical than to put up a legal water fence around the region and then thumb your nose at water efficiency,” said Peter Annin, author of the book “The Great Lakes Water Wars.”

To encourage conservation, local elected officials have required homes and businesses to become more efficient, mandating the use of low-flow shower heads and appliances that use far less water.

The result has been a significant drop in overall water use by Illinois over the past 20 years — by nearly 30 percent, state officials say. And despite its losses, Illinois still fares better than many other states.

But improvements to unseen pipes and water mains have not materialized. In towns like Maywood, for example, water loss has remained stubbornly high.

To gain a better understanding of the scope of the waste, the state in 2015 began requiring municipalities and utilities that use Lake Michigan water to report how much they take in, and how much is lost, using a more specific and strict standard. The self-reporting system is far from perfect, and some experts caution there can be inconsistencies in the data as individual towns learn to more accurately audit and measure their losses.

Some towns, defying state regulators, fail to meet even this basic reporting requirement. Dixmoor, Robbins, Harvey and Ford Heights are among those that did not report water loss figures to the state in 2016.

The reports that were filed show a range of losses. Some communities are highly efficient with their water: Lynwood, Norridge, Mount Prospect and Winfield all contain their losses to 1 percent or slightly more.

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