By Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance

August 30, 2016

This article originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune.

Appearing before a Michigan legislative hearing this spring on the Flint water crisis, LeeAnne Walters described, in a quavering voice, what the city’s lead-laden water had done to her family — particularly Gavin, one of her 5-year-old twins. He weighed just 35 pounds, she said, 21 pounds less than his twin brother, Garrett. For a year, he hadn’t shown any signs of growth. “Yes, it keeps me up at night,” she testified. “Yes, it makes me emotional. These are my kids. These are everybody’s kids.”

What happened in Flint, a disturbing tale of government callousness and ineptitude, etched into the national consciousness the issue of lead-contaminated drinking water. City officials’ reaction to the crisis was astoundingly slow, even as it became clear that residents had elevated levels of lead in their blood because of the water. Bottled water is now the norm in Flint. Three government workers face evidence tampering charges.

Nothing in Illinois approaches what Flint has experienced. But as the Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne and Jennifer Smith Richards report, in nearly 200 Illinois public water systems, the amount of lead in drinking water exceeded federal standards during at least one year since 2004.

In Chicago, nearly 80 percent of homes and properties connect with underground water mains via lead-piped service lines. The Tribune reported in February that the city checks just 50 homes for lead contamination in water every three years, the minimum required by the federal government. And it rarely tests in neighborhoods where childhood lead poisoning has emerged as a concern. Those areas include neighborhoods on the South and West sides, where lead poisoning rates are consistently higher than the national average.

Cities across America are struggling to decide what to do with the millions of lead pipes buried in the ground. Two cities, Madison, Wis., and Lansing, Mich., came up with a bold answer Chicago should consider.

Faced with elevated lead levels in water, Madison tore out every last inch of lead piping. It took 11 years, cost $15.5 million and entailed the removal of 8,000 lead pipes. By 2011, when the pipes were gone, so was, for the most part, the lead in water. The highest lead level detected since then has been 3.5 parts per billion, well below the federal standard of 15 parts per billion.

The unusual tack had its critics. The city’s water utility bore the cost for removal of the service lines it owned. But it also required its customers to do the same for lead pipes on their properties. To cushion the blow, the utility reimbursed homeowners for half of the cost of the work, up to $1,000. The average price tag to homeowners was $1,340, which meant their average out-of-pocket cost was about $670.

Lansing adopted a similar approach, and by June, the city is expected to wrap up its 10-year, $40 million effort to rip out 14,500 pipes.

Parallels between Lansing and Madison exist that perhaps make it easier for those cities to take such drastic action. Both are state capitals with university communities; they team with well-educated populations willing to pay for safer water. Chicago is much bigger, and its socio-economic strata are much more diverse. A comparable program here might meet greater resistance.

But the danger that lead in water poses to Chicagoans, especially to children, won’t just vanish. Yes, the city can point to the fact that it has not exceeded federal standards for lead since 1992. But remember, the city’s testing rarely happens in neighborhoods where lead poisoning in children is a problem. Lead is also a worry for other towns in the state — in Galesburg, lead levels have been high enough to coax federal officials into urging local government to dole out bottled water or filters to its residents.

Chicago’s interim solution of treating drinking water with anti-corrosion chemicals that create a protective coating inside pipes and keep lead from leaching into the water needs to continue. But even that approach has drawbacks. The city continues to replace old water mains, and when it does, that work can break down the protective coating.

Chicago needs a permanent fix. But who pays for all this?

We think the Madison user-fee blueprint has a lot of merit, with the rebate program halving the amount that homeowners had to pay to replace pipes on their property. Money for the rebates came from rent revenue paid by cellular phone service providers for permission to put their antennas on water tanks and towers. The city did not raise rates to help pay for the project.

Our thought: If you use water, you should pay for it. And by extension, if it becomes obvious that money needs to be spent to make that water safer, we users need to bear that cost.

If Chicago adopts such a program, there should be one major twist: It would make sense to subsidize the work in low-income neighborhoods, which should be first on the list since they typically are the sections of the city with the worst lead levels.

True, the city’s problems are myriad and entrenched. But lead pipes that threaten the health of our children is one of them. Removing those pipes would be money well spent.