Chicago's leaky water system | Bleader

Chicago's leaky water system

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In November 2007, John Spatz Jr., Chicago’s water commissioner at the time, wrote a letter informing suburban governments that that they would soon have to pay more to tap the city’s water supply: Mayor Daley had decided to raise rates by 44 percent over the following three years.

Spatz assured Chicago’s suburban customers that the money would go toward shoring up the system that five million people in the region rely on for water. “These rate increases are needed to keep up with the increasing costs of operations and maintenance due to increases in labor, materials, energy and fuel costs, rising costs of construction to maintain and replace aging infrastructure, increasing costs of capital projects and costs associated with regulatory compliance.”

What Spatz didn’t mention is that the water proceeds were also being used to shore up the rest of Chicago’s money-hungry government operations, as tens of millions of dollars were being used to pay for consultants, administrators, equipment, and pension and health benefits for city workers outside the water department, according to budget records and mayoral aides.

Perhaps this sounds familiar. As Ben Joravsky and I reported this week, our new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has made much the same pitch in asking for water and sewer rates to be doubled over the next decade.

Emanuel has presented this as an environmental necessity—“Today our ability to deliver quality water is threatened by the aging system that provides it”—even though his budget will also dismantle the city’s Department of Environment, the office responsible for coordinating the city’s green initiatives. Aldermen are poised to sign off on the budget next week.

It’s true that the water and sewer systems need serious work. The city has more than 1,000 miles of water pipes that are more than a century old and another 1,600 miles that are between 60 and 99 years old, according to audits the city files each year with state authorities. These decaying old pipes account for more than half of the city’s water lines and are the primary reason that 10 million gallons of water leak away in Chicago every day—a colossal waste of resources.

Just to keep up with basic maintenance, the city is supposed to be replacing 40 miles of water pipe a year, experts say. To make ground upgrading the system, the pace needs to be twice that.

Last month current water commissioner Thomas Powers told aldermen that starting next year the city will spend about $250 million annually to replace crumbling water and sewer lines, an increase of about $35 million over what was budgeted for this year. Perhaps half of the work will be done by outside firms, with contracts worth millions of dollars to be awarded in the months ahead.

But Powers had no details on how or where the work will be done.

“We’re still putting together our plan,” he said.

It bears watching, because the city didn’t follow through on the similarly vague promises it made with the last rate increases. Over the last decade, taxpayers got less for more.

As you can see from the table below, as the city’s water funds increased by about 40 percent from 2001 to 2010, the mileage of new water mains it built actually fell by 40 percent, according to annual budgets and water audits.

But that’s not what city officials were telling their customers.

“In the last ten years, we have continued with investing in our facilities,” Spatz insisted in his letter. He just didn’t say how much.

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