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Evanston’s mayor said at a recent water summit that without more help from the federal government, the city will have to increase the water rate by 70% to pay for the cost of removing lead water pipes.

Mayor Daniel Biss said at Thursday’s One Water Summit that the city has been working to replace its 11,471 lead service lines but can’t afford to without more federal funding.

“Without additional outside funding, this would result in an increase of more than 70% to our retail customers for their water rate,” Biss said in a speech at the Mayors Commission on Water Equity event.

“What that essentially imposes upon us, absent significant external support, is a choice between two competing water equity goals: the goal of lead service line replacement and the goal of manageable water retail rates. So, we are simply in a situation where this is unachievable without significant external support, much of which will need to come from the federal government.”

Previous RoundTable reporting has shown that nearly 80% of the city’s service lines are made of lead. The drinking water that travels through lead pipes can expose people to traces of lead, something to which children are especially vulnerable.

According to the Safe Drinking Water Foundation, exposure to lead can lead to a variety of health problems, including developmental delays in children and nervous system effects in both children and adults “including forgetfulness, tiredness, headaches, changes in mood and behavior, lower IQ, decreased hand dexterity and weakness of arms, legs, wrists, fingers or ankles.” 

A RoundTable investigation found that 94% of the 1,602 Evanston children 6 and younger who were tested for blood lead levels in 2018 were above the CDC’s blood lead reference value. 

A shot from Lion Birnecker’s winning film, Take Action Against Lead, about lead water pipes.

The Mayors Commission on Water Equity is made up of a cluster of mayors of communities that surround the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin. It was established in 2020 in an effort to advocate for water equity. The commission works with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which is a coalition of nearly 100 city mayors in the U.S. and Canada working to restore the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin. 

At Thursday’s meeting, mayors from Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin met in Milwaukee with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency. The mayors  discussed, for five minutes each, their progress and challenges with replacing lead pipes in their cities.

Evanston intends to replace all its lead service lines over the next 20 years and Biss estimates this will cost $168 million in 2021 dollars.

Since 2021, the city has been working to gradually replace 600 lead service lines in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. That project will cost the city approximately $4 million, the mayor said.

As of Sept. 1, he said, 92 lead service lines have been replaced. The mayor expects that 162 lines will be replaced this year, which will cost $1.5 million. 

The city intends to pay for the project using loans from the Illinois EPA, the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Illinois Public Water Supply Loan program, as well as a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

But this funding still won’t be enough, the mayor told the commission.

President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law gave the EPA $50 billion to improve drinking water and wastewater systems.

The majority of the $50 billion will go toward EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, Karen Dettmer from the EPA’s Office of Water explained during the meeting.

The new law also requires 49% of the revolving funds be given to “disadvantaged communities” as grants and forgivable loans. But the definition of “disadvantaged communities” varies state by state, so Dettmer urged states to review how their definitions compare to the EPA’s so that the communities who need help the most can get it.

The EPA launched an initiative to help communities complete their State Revolving Fund applications.

Its Technical Assistance Program helps communities write their application, identify who needs assistance and even assist with construction management for those communities that don’t have the capacity, the EPA’s Dettmer said.

A total of $100 million from the infrastructure law’s $50 billion will go toward the Technical Assistance Program.

Another effort Biss outlined to the commission is the stormwater improvement plan. He blamed climate change and aging infrastructure for deteriorating the city’s stormwater system.

The city is using a series of studies to develop a high-level stormwater capital improvement plan for future consideration. The city is using $3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund this program.

“The city requires continued support from the federal government in order to remove lead throughout the water system, build resilience to the effects of climate change and continue to support water equity,” Biss said.

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the Evanston RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative...

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  1. I continue to remind our community that there is a back story to these fiscal issues that arise. Dave Stoneback was recently promoted to Deputy City Manager. He has managed Evanston’s public works for many years. Many cities across the country have been removing lead pipes through a sustained program to avoid what Evanston now faces. The costs associated with the lead pipes and also with Fountain Square are a result of his management. These issues did not begin today. Evanston hires senior managers and pays them well with the expectation that they perform their jobs in furtherance of the well being of our community. Unfortunately, our Mayor and City Council the elected trustees for our city have done a very poor job of holding city staff accountable for the many management blunders that have cost the city and taxpayers many tens of millions of dollars.

    I believe that the genesis of the mistakes are not only rooted in competence, but also in the fact that the people who manage our city do not reside here. The City Manager, Deputy City Manager, Director of Recreation, Director of Public Works, Director of the Health Department and 95% of the Evanston Police force all live outside of Evanston. There are some city staff living outside of this community that have genuine ties to Evanston having attended Evanston schools or have family that live here. However, most of the 80% of city staff that work here do not live here. It has not only impacted key decisions, it has made the city even more expensive, because of poor decision making not informed by residency.

    We need to elect leaders willing to prioritize the residency issue.

    1. I would like to read any academic or professional reference you have that connects residency to competence. Chicago has residency. They are not a good advertisement of it and they’re one of the largest cities in the country. You undermine your own argument when you say the elected officials, who reside in Evanston, are not holding non-resident staff accountable. Clearly, residency isn’t the issue.