Andersonville neighbors Tamara Schiller and Lesley Ames were heartbroken when they got the letter from their alderman on June 18.
It read: "After exhausting all options and alternatives, the Department of Water Management has determined that the trees on Balmoral, Summerdale, Berwyn and Farragut listed below will have to be removed…"
The two neighbors had been working for months to protect the trees from removal by the water department for infrastructure work. The letter from Chicago Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th Ward, felt like a final defeat and the certain loss of some of the neighborhood’s biggest and oldest trees — more than a dozen on adjoining blocks.
But, by early July, they got word that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office had put a temporary hold on the tree cutting to await the outcome of a proposed state rule change due for a hearing on July 16. If accepted, it would explicitly offer municipalities less disruptive repair methods. In Chicago, the proposed rule change could save more than 100 trees across the city slated to be removed this summer. This inspired Ames to write a letter of her own to Lightfoot on July 3, which reads in part:
"The Andersonville community is frustrated because there was an ongoing dialogue with the city to find solutions, but it stopped abruptly and residents were left in the dark. And, Randy Conner, Chicago Water Commissioner says the trees must come down. If something is not done urgently, Andersonville and many other neighborhoods will lose their trees. Your help is needed."
While Lightfoot’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the letter, Ames said recent moves suggest that the mayor’s office is willing to consider different approaches.
"The information about the two-week hold and the potential new rule gave us a glimpse of hope that there’s a possible solution that will save the trees," Ames said.
The specific solutions to which she is referring include using water main quality materials to construct the sewer lines and/or putting liners inside existing sewers and mains to shore them up.
"There are a number of options that communities can evaluate and determine what’s best for them," said Kim Biggs of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), which requested the rule change to make the options more explicit to municipalities.
The proposed rule change will go before the Illinois Pollution Control Board on July 16 and then before the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules in early August.
Although the rule change will make the options clearer for municipalities, technology like liners (known as “cured-in-place-piping,” or CIPP) are already being used in nearby towns like Rockford, Orland Park, Evanston, Arlington Heights and Lombard. Officials in Lombard created an informational flyer stating: "Through several years of planning, the Village, along with its consultant, elected to pursue Cured-In-Place-Pipe (CIPP) Lining to replace the aging water main in order to minimize the impact on traffic and surrounding businesses."
So, if so many other Illinois municipalities have already used these less disruptive technologies, why is Chicago still tearing up its streets, causing the loss of trees and millions of dollars in business on streets where the work is being done?
WBEZ put this question to the Chicago Department of Water Management for several weeks and got back this statement:
"There are very specific requirements set by the IEPA regarding the water and sewer separation in order to maintain safe drinking water standards. The lining of water mains is not technically feasible for a dense, urban setting like Chicago and does not make the water main IEPA compliant."
So, the department is right about IEPA compliance. Installing the liners won’t put Illinois towns in compliance with the IEPA’s rules requiring work crews to separate sewers from water mains by a certain distance during replacement work. In fact, by the IEPA's standards, the sewers and water mains in most Illinois towns have been too close to one another for decades. But when municipalities receive a permit to use liners instead of replacing the infrastructure, "there is a clause that requires them to address that [distance issue] at the next opportunity," Biggs said.
And while many of the Illinois towns using liners are much smaller than Chicago, the dense urban city of Toronto has been able to use liners in its water mains. Toronto has even more residents than Chicago.
Still, CIPP is not a perfect option. The liners last about 50 years, so they’re not a permanent fix. Additionally, reports indicate that some construction crews have improperly discharged waste water and materials from the lining projects. Others have released dangerous styrene into the air and nearby waterways. Others note that, in some instances, installing the liners can cost more in construction fees than opening the streets and replacing entire water mains.
Officials in Lombard told WBEZ that the cost of relining water mains along Roosevelt Road was about 5% more expensive than digging up the street and replacing the main. But Schiller is asking the city to think about a wider range of costs when it considers taking down old-growth trees.
"The city has not taken into consideration the cost of a mature 100-year-old tree," Schiller said.
"You cannot replace a 100-year-old tree. So what does it cost?" she asked. "It’s invaluable. It is not a low-value item, which is how it’s being considered by some of the departments."
Osterman, Schiller’s alderman, said he remains cautiously optimistic about the possible rule change, for his ward and beyond.
"I think it’s an issue that’s affecting us today but will affect other communities around the city, as well as cost us to replace the trees down the road," he said. "So it’s my hope that collectively the city and state can come up with some options that will provide clean water to residents with these new water main projects, as well as not have trees come down when there are future water or sewer projects."
With the spread of the Emerald ash borer, the Chicago area has lost millions of trees in recent decades. But what gets tree supporters about the loss of more than 100 trees due to water main work is that these are healthy trees — some several decades old. In a time of increasing concern over climate change, these are trees that eat a lot of carbon, provide a lot of shade, help the ground absorb a lot of rain and reduce energy costs.
And they’re trees that, in some cases, would take a lifetime to grow again.
Monica Eng is a reporter for WBEZ's Curious City. You can follow her @monicaeng.