About 700 Chicago Park District drinking fountains are connected to water mains through lead service lines that can leach lead into the water. This week, park district officials say they have a five-year plan to either remove those fountains or replace the toxic lines with copper.
The move comes after tests in recent years found lead in the water of hundreds of park fountains — some 80 times higher than federal compliance levels.
“From here forward there are about 700 fountains that need to be addressed with our long-term plan,” said Dan Cooper, the district’s director of environmental services. “About 350 will be removed and 350 will be fixed with lead service line replacements.”
Although several fountains with lead plumbing are currently in operation at city parks, Cooper said those have been deemed “safe” to drink from, meaning most recent tests have shown lead levels at less than 2 parts per billion. Health authorities stress there is no safe level of lead for human consumption.
Cooper said many outdoor fountains are currently running continuously as part of a multi-week seasonal flushing. Many will be returned to push-button use in a few weeks. But fountains that had problematic lead readings in the past will continue to flow around the clock all season or until they have been fixed.
The city did not respond to questions about how it will pay for the work.
The announcement of the five-year fountain overhaul comes about nine weeks before an estimated 40,000 Chicago kids start park district day camp, where many campers will drink from park fountains each day. Lead from water and other sources can impair children’s ability to learn, and can cause behavioral and other problems.
While the city is planning relatively swift action on lead service lines in parks, officials have been slower to address lead service lines that deliver water to more than 392,000 Chicago homes. Despite years of calls from researchers and activists, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has resisted calls for lead line replacement. Last year, however, the city finally agreed to study the issue. The results of that study are expected later this year.
A history of lead-tainted water
Curious City first investigated the park water fountain issue in 2016, when members of the public asked if the city ever tested the water in park district fountains for lead. At the time, it hadn’t.
But after multiple inquiries that summer from WBEZ and other news outlets, the park district tested its roughly 1,200 outdoor fountains. Officials found that about a fourth of the fountains delivered water with lead levels that violated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action limit of 15 parts per billion. The EPA’s action limit is designed to flag system-wide problems for water utilities and municipalities and is a level at which they must take action to reduce lead. It not a level that is protective of human health.
In spring of 2017, the district tried to remedy the situation by bypassing push-button controls and running fountains continuously for a month. The goal was to flush lead sediment out of pipes and drinking water, as well as condition the lines.
This flushing decreased the lead levels in most fountains. However, in more than 100 park district fountains, lead levels spiked once again when they were returned to normal push-button use. The district left those running continuously all summer, which reduced lead levels in the water but sent millions of gallons of filtered drinking water into sewers.
By last spring, officials settled on a different approach. They stopped using 15 parts per billion as a threshold for action. Outdoor fountains were then divided into two categories: those that never registered detectable lead levels (or 2 parts per billion and above) and about 750 that had.
Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been active on the issue of clean drinking water, applauded the move at the time.
“Closing down those water fountains as an interim step is a good one,” he told WBEZ. “The larger points of water efficiency and access are really important, and need to be addressed, but in the short term, let’s make sure we are not giving kids brain poison.”
The city’s next steps
In response to the latest plan, Mogerman offered mixed feelings, especially about the hundreds of fountains will be taken out of service.
“I’d be interested in seeing how they would be making these choices,” he said. “Some of these fountains are likely difficult to fix because their service lines are so long. But offering Chicagoans reduced service doesn’t seem like a real solution.”
As for this summer, Cooper said the district is still deciding which lead-contaminated fountains to leave on continuous flow and which to shut down permanently or replace. It has already removed or replaced at least two dozen fountains since last summer.
Cooper acknowledged that running fountains all season wastes a lot of clean filtered water, but for now, he has to balance a few different factors.
“Requirement one is providing only clean water,” he said. “Two is providing water to the public where it is needed the most, and three is not wasting water and conserving clean fresh water.”
In five years, he said, he hopes the issues will be easier to balance.
If you use park district fountains, here’s what to keep in mind:
If you see a fountain still operating with a push-button, it means the park district has not detected elevated lead levels in its water.
If you see a fountain running constantly, it’s because that fountain has previously tested high for lead. But running it continuously reduces the lead levels in the water. Leaving it on was also deemed necessary because it is located in a high traffic area.
If you see a fountain that’s been shut off, lead has been detected in its water but it is located in a relatively low-use location. Officials say this will be the likely status of more than 300 fountains this season.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the level at which the Chicago Park District currently classifies a water fountain’s lead levels as “elevated.” In 2018, district officials lowered their threshold to 2 ppb.
Monica Eng is a reporter for Curious City. You can follow her @monicaeng.