Folks who recently visited Chicago’s lakefront and parks may have noticed something strange: drinking fountains spouting water non-stop since mid-April.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” says Tyler Black, a Lincoln Park resident who sent a question to Curious City after seeing several fountains running all day. “We’re just wasting all that water and all that money, why?”
Last year, tests showed 43 percent of all Chicago parks had at least one fountain with dangerously high lead levels in the water. Some of the fountains delivered lead levels at more than 80 times the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. When more than 10 percent of tested homes in a municipality exceed this level, officials must act to remediate.
Could last year’s lead problems be the reason why the fountains have been running non-stop for weeks?
On Tuesday Curious City took Black’s question to Chicago Park District officials. On Friday afternoon the district responded with this statement:
“At the start of the season this year, the District began implementing a new water management plan that includes a flushing protocol where all outdoor drinking fountains run continuously for approximately one month. To date, the Park District has received initial sampling results from over 1,800 outdoor fountains with passing results from 96.5%.
The fountains that did not meet the EPA drinking water standard for lead content of 15 parts per billion will remain out of service until repaired, replaced or removed as necessary. Fountains that do not meet these standards are currently unavailable to the public, and will become accessible once testing confirms that they meet EPA requirements for quality drinking water.”
A park district spokeswoman said all fountains were tested before being turned on this spring, and those that did not pass initial tests were turned off. The remaining fountains were flushed as a precaution and to condition the pipes. The spokeswoman said the public was not notified because those fountains had already passed lead tests.
So where are the 66 outdoor fountains that delivered high lead levels in initial tests? Why are so many fountains still running continuously nearly seven weeks after WBEZ first documented the practice? Park District representatives did not have immediate answers to these questions, but here’s what we do know.
WBEZ tests indicate a lot of water is lost in the process, on average about 575 gallons per spigot per day. Based on the 1,891 fountains being flushed across the city, that adds up to nearly a million gallons of filtered drinking water each day.
Back in 2003, the park district was so concerned about this type of water waste that it invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to retrofit 1,000 of its outdoor fountains with new on-and-off switches — switches that are being bypassed for the flushing.
Black was one of three Curious Citizens who sent in a question about the fountains last month. Others were Christina Ramone and Elana Sitrin.
When told about the explanation for the continuous fountains, Black wondered about the cost: “The city is not in a good financial spot,” she said, “and they can’t just be running water around the clock for free.”
Black also wondered what message it was sending to her kids as they watch a continuous fountain in a park near their school just create a “big puddle on the ground.”
“As a parent we teach our kids to save water and turn it off the water after they wash their hands, then they see the city just running the water all day,” she says. “What are they supposed to learn from that?”
If and when all of the 1,891 outdoor fountains are taken off their continuous flow, the district says they will be operable with their on and off buttons again.
In the latest round of testing, the city says it tested outdoor fountain water before and after the flushing procedure. It says additional sampling will be completed throughout the summer. The district does not yet have a date when it will publish the results.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org