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“The Water Drain”

Friday, Oct 27, 2017

* From the Tribune’s latest investigative series

Lake Michigan water rates have been surging throughout the Chicago region in recent years, squeezing low-income residents and leaving them with little, if any, recourse, a Tribune analysis shows.

In this tangled network that delivers water to the vast majority of the region’s residents, the Tribune found an upside-down world, one where people in the poorest communities pay more for a basic life necessity than those in the wealthiest.

And the financial pain falls disproportionately on majority-African-American communities, where residents’ median water bill is 20 percent higher for the same amount of water than residents pay in predominantly white communities, the Tribune’s examination revealed.

Consider Ford Heights, a cash-strapped, predominantly African-American suburb south of Chicago. People there pay nearly six times more for the same amount of water than residents of Highland Park, a wealthy, predominantly white town on the North Shore — and four times more than Chicago residents.

In the end, little is stopping local leaders from raising rates even more: Illinois regulators have no oversight authority over towns’ water rates. […]

Community leaders offer a variety of explanations for the high rates. Some acknowledge that residents are paying for significant amounts of water lost through cracked pipes and leaky hydrants. Others say they are imposing higher rates to pay exorbitant replacement costs of that infrastructure.

* Part 2

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. […]

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. […]

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 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.

WBEZ interviewed the reporters. Click here to listen.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - Anonymous - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 1:59 pm:

    Should water be more regulated by the state? (i.e. Look at Michigan and their water utilities) Yes….

    However the race issue is quite pathetic. Most of these suburbs like Maywood and Harvey have been mismanaged now for an eternity so it’s not surprising that their paying the price of corruption and crony management.

  2. - Perrid - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 2:17 pm:

    “In the past two years, two towns — Harvey and Maywood — have been singled out for mismanagement or fraud.” and “One community, Harvey, does not list rates on its water bills and did not respond to requests from the Tribune.”

    I don’t know, I really don’t know, how any of the local politicians in Harvey stay out of jail, let alone get re-elected.

  3. - Amalia - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 2:30 pm:

    Fix the pipes. And everyone should conserve. don’t water your lawn. (there should be a rule for government buildings.) don’t run the water until after you brush your teeth. we can all do our part to save the water for important usage.

  4. - NeverPoliticallyCorrect - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 2:38 pm:

    Another example of the terrible management of our resources by elected officials who have no motivation to do the right thing. All too often there is no competition at elections and no penalty for governance malfeasance. But voters need to be involved also and this doesn’t happen enough.

  5. - Telly - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 2:50 pm:

    The people getting whacked with the high bills voted in those corrupt and incompetent governments.

    Part of the problem is a result of there being too many municipalities in the Chicago area. Sometimes the desire for local control really messes up the “economy of scale” that comes with larger, unified government.

  6. - We'll See - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 2:56 pm:

    There lots of finger pointing to be had in all of this; but keep in prospective that within these poor communities the tax base is so far eroded that the water fees is one of the few revenue streams the village have.

    In a vicious cycle, they charge high water rates to generate revenue and to pay for the loss of water due to failing water mains, and there is never enough revenue left over to make the necessary repairs.

  7. - Downstate - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 3:12 pm:

    We’ll See,
    You are correct. The prevailing wage rates make it incredibly expensive to hire an outside contractor, while pension obligations are draining many small town resources, forcing them to reduce the workforce that might enact these repairs.

  8. - Put the fun in unfunded - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 3:15 pm: Harvey is the hub for distributing water to a number of poor south suburbs. Harvey itself has diverted funds and not paid Chicago. And Rahm has about doubled water rates in the last few years.

  9. - City Zen - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 3:31 pm:

    2 villages that share borders:

    Alsip = $34.95
    Robbins = $63.65

  10. - We'll See - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 3:37 pm:

    “2 villages that share borders”

    And their tax bases are miles and miles apart.

  11. - Barrington - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 4:44 pm:

    Not sure using Highland Park and Ford Heights is a good comparison. Highland Park is on the lake and has a water plant and sells water to other suburbs. Ford Heights is inland and buys water from Chicago Heights. Chicago Heights buys its water from Hammond Indiana.

  12. - Barrington - Friday, Oct 27, 17 @ 4:46 pm:

    Maywood does have problems that include the water department. Residents rightly or wrongly are suspicious of the city water and often choose to drink bottled water than tap water.

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