Over the years, Curious City has answered lots of your important questions about water — especially about toxic lead in Chicago’s drinking water.
With 400,000 lead service lines lurking beneath Chicago homes, the city faces the worst documented lead line problem in the nation.
But a new law passed last month makes Illinois one of just two states in the country, along with Michigan, that will now mandate full replacement of all the lead service lines.
So we’re going to answer some questions about how the new law is supposed to work. We’ve also got updates on lead issues in Chicago’s drinking fountains as well as a promising theory on why homes with new water meters have seen elevated lead levels in their water.
What does the new Illinois state law say about lead water pipes?
The new law, called the Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act essentially gives all municipalities in the state deadlines to count and remove their lead service lines. In Chicago the deadline for removal of all the lead service lines is 2077. The reason different municipalities have different deadlines is because they have different numbers of lines.
What are the specific requirements and deadlines for Chicago under the new law?
2022: Chicago must stop doing partial lead service line replacements (PLSLR) — a dangerous procedure where the city repairs a home’s lead pipe by attaching a piece of copper pipe or other material to it. During this process the lead pipe is left in place while other components are replaced. The process can spike lead levels in that home’s water for more than a year and homeowners are often unaware when this work is being done as the city is not required to notify them.
2023: Chicago must start replacing lead service lines in areas where it is replacing the water main (which is attached to the lead lines). Unfortunately, this deadline occurs right after the city is expected to complete its 10-year water main replacement plan.
2024: Chicago must complete an inventory of all the lead lines in the city. Right now officials estimate Chicago has about 400,000, based on the number of single family homes and small apartments built prior to 1986. Installation of lead service lines was mandatory in Chicago before 1986.
2027: Chicago must complete its 50-year plan to replace all of its lead service lines at the rate of two percent (or about 8,000) lines per year.
2077: All lead service lines must be gone from Chicago homes.
Any municipality can apply for an extension under the bill, up to 20 percent of the original time allotted, and then a second extension up to 10 percent.
How will Chicago pay for all of this?
Chicago recently got $15 million in renewable block grants to perform free lead service line removals for low-income residents as part of a more modest removal plan released by the city last fall. The city also recently received $2 billion from the American Rescue Plan that could be used on water improvements. And Chicago could be eligible for about $5 billion in funds specifically earmarked for lead service line replacement if the American Jobs Act passes. It’s not clear, however, how this funding will directly help average Chicago homeowners pay for lead line replacement in the near future. Much of this is likely to be spelled out in the removal plan the city must release by 2027.
What’s happening with Chicago’s water meter problem?
In summer of 2019 Mayor Lori Lightfoot halted all new water meter installations because city tests showed that 22 percent of homes with new meters had elevated lead levels in their water. Since then, water officials have been investigating why this was happening. Last week, new water management commissioner Andrea Cheng said the elevated levels likely stem from a “disturbance” that may be linked to the type of meter the city has been installing, which has moving parts. So, in recent months, her department has been experimenting with a less disturbing “ultra-sonic” meter. “Those results are expected to be around in the fall,” Cheng said. “And if those results show that installing those ultrasonic meters doesn’t have an impact, then we’ll be able to [restart] the Meter Save [installation] program.”
Will the drinking fountains in the parks be turned back on?
All Chicago Park District fountains were shut off in 2020 for COVID-19 safety, but most will be turned back on after June 25, when the Park District also plans to reopen pools and spray fountains. Park officials said this process may take up to four weeks as the Park District gradually restarts and flushes the fountain plumbing for a short time before allowing drinking access.
Many of these fountains were shut off in 2016 after tests showed that two-thirds (about 800) of all outdoor drinking fountains had lead in their water. The Park District permanently closed half of those fountains and is working to remediate the other half. So far, they have fixed about 100 fountains and added 150 new bottle filling stations. Fountains that still pose potential lead problems when turned on with a button will be run continuously which Park District officials said eliminates the lead threat.
“All fountains will again be tested for lead as they have been every year since 2016, with the exception of 2020 when the fountains were not turned on,” Park officials said in an email to Curious City.
Monica Eng is the reporter for WBEZ’s Curious City. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: In a previous version of this story we said a PSLR is done by attaching copper to the home’s lead pipe. A PSLR could also be done using another type of material other than copper.