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Evanston may beef up loan incentives to spur private lead-pipe replacements

City officials did not have a lot of takers in 2017 when they offered an interest-free loan to homeowners for help in the cost of replacing the lead piping from the water service lines that run from the City’s water main into  their homes.

“For the three years that this loan program has been available,” observed Dave Stoneback, the City’s Public Works Agency Director, in a Feb. 8 memo to the City Council, “a total of 301 water services were replaced as part of the water main replacement program, but only 21 loans have been issued. This indicates that only approximately 7% of the property owners are taking advantage of the loan program.”

New Incentives in Loan Program

City officials are hoping to improve that response. At the Feb. 9 City Council meeting, Mr. Stoneback unveiled a new loan incentive program from staff for aldermen to consider. 

Mr. Stoneback said an ordinance will be introduced at the next City Council meeting to modify the current loan program. After the ordinance is adopted, he said, the City’s Water Division staff will be contacting property owners about the program and inviting them to a meeting.

The proposed changes included:

  • Increasing the amount  of the loan, currently set at $4,800, to cover the full plumbing cost of having the property owner’s portion of the lead service line replaced;
  • Giving the property owner more time to pay off the loan. Currently the loan must be repaid within four years, at $100 per month (charged as a $200 cost on the bi-monthly water bill), noted Mr. Stoneback.

Staff’s proposal recommends keeping the same repayment amount, but if more than $4,800 is borrowed it will allow the homeowner more time to pay off the loan, he said.

In addition the changes would take into account those property owners determined to be “economically disadvantaged,” perhaps establishing different levels in the ability to pay, he said.

Concern Since the Flint Crisis

The City’s initial program came in the wake of concern nationally in 2014 over the Flint, Mich., water crisis. Lead is a toxic metal and can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels, according to guidelines put out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Corrosive water drawn from the Flint River came in contact with the lead water service lines in use in that city, causing lead to leach into the drinking water, resulting in lead readings that exceeded the federal “action level”, Mr. Stoneback noted.

Evanston Drinking Water Counts

Lead readings in water from Evanston pipes fall well below the danger zone, Mr. Stoneback said in response to a question from Mayor Stephen Hagerty at the Feb. 9 meeting.

Lead piping was used in Evanston up until 1980, Mr. Stoneback said.

In 1992, Evanston initiated the use of a blended phosphate treatment for corrosion control, officials said. The treatment is designed to minimize the amount of lead that can seep into the water from fixtures and service lines, they said.

A corrosion inhibitor control program was started at that time, and the lead levels in Evanston have always been below the action level of 15 parts per billion, generally in the range of seven to 10 parts per billion, he said.

A new lead-and-copper rule has more stringent testing and uses a different type of testing, requiring samples to be taken beyond the first draw, he said.

But even based on that, officials believe that the lead readings will fall below the levels set under the new regulations

Those regulations, which will not be enforceable until 2024, will prohibit partial lead service lines,” Mr. Stoneback said.

That poses somewhat of a problem, Mr. Stoneback said at the meeting, “because the City has an aging water main system, with more than 55% of the mains over 80 years old.”

He pointed out that figure is an improvement over 59% of the mains in 2010, when Council gave backing to a stepped up main replacement program.

“So we have made some headway on this, but not enough, “ he told Council members, “so staff recommends that we continue to do the replacement of water mains on an annual basis, replacing 1% of the water mains, or one-and-a- half miles.

He said the schedule includes the main replacement work planned for this year, so the property owner would need to obtain quotes from plumbing companies and enter into a contract with one to have the work completed as the main replacement is occurring.

In the future, “given enough time,” Mr. Stoneback said, “we could have the replacement of the full lead service line as part of the water main project — meaning that homeowners would have to allow us to go into their homes to replace the lead service line.”

That provision could not be incorporated into the 2021 program because it is already too far along. Staff recommends that property owners whose water service will be impacted by the main work be given increased incentives, Mr.Stoneback said, “to replace their portion of the water service to avoid the creation of as many partial lead services as possible.”

More information about what the City is doing about lead in drinking water is available on  the City’s website, cityofevanston.org., under “lead and drinking water.”

In illustration above, the “Private Water Service Line” that runs from the City’s water main into the home is the one that could contain lead. Screenshot from a video of the American Water Association.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.