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Legislation aims to make water rates across Illinois more affordable and equitable

Monday, April 22, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Patrick O'Connell

Aiming to address a disparity in what Illinois residents pay for the water they use for drinking, cooking and bathing, proposed legislation in Springfield would require a comprehensive review of water rates throughout northeastern Illinois. The review would initially focus on how rates are set in communities that use water from Lake Michigan, but eventually include an analysis of rates throughout the entire state.

The goal of the legislation, proponents said, is to make water rates across Illinois more affordable and equitable. Several sponsors of the legislation in the Illinois House and Senate represent communities in the suburbs south and west of Chicago where residents pay some of the highest rates in the state.

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“We have to finally monitor the rates that our residents are being charged for water,” said state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, the sponsor in the House.

The proposed legislation, lawmakers said, is in response to “The Water Drain,” a series of stories the Chicago Tribune published in 2017. The Tribune found that residents in the region’s lowest-income communities pay more for their water — as much as six times more — than residents in the wealthiest towns. The series also found that residents of towns with majority African-American populations pay a monthly water bill that is 20 percent higher than towns with majority white populations. At the same time, some of those towns lose more than a third of their water to leaking infrastructure.

“The goal is, in Illinois, it’s well-known and understood that rates in certain areas vary, and I think we had had to slow-walk things to get better understanding and to get more people to understand what’s going on and to get more buy-in,” said Ford, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Chicago during the spring. “I decided to lead for a change to the way we deliver water and to try to provide some people some relief.”

Ford said water is a basic civil right and the state should make sure it is delivered through a system that is fair.

The legislation, which has passed in the Senate and is awaiting a hearing before the House Public Utilities Committee, calls for the formation of a water rate advisory committee to study what communities pay for water and how those rates are set. The committee would include academic experts and representatives from several state agencies, including the state Environmental Protection Agency, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the attorney general’s office and the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

The proposal is designed to have the review of Lake Michigan water rates completed by December 2020, with the remainder of the state to come a year later. It would also address “the reasons for increases in water rates,” “the definition of affordability,” the “challenges within economically disadvantaged communities” and “opportunities for increased intergovernmental coordination for setting equitable water rates.”

Several other proposals in Springfield also target water-related issues. One aims to create a clean water workforce pipeline program that would provide grants and financial help to support careers in water infrastructure. Another is designed to direct the Illinois EPA to prioritize disadvantaged communities when distributing funds for the water loan program. And another would create a new Cook County water infrastructure fund to help pay for system upgrades and bolster state oversight in an attempt to prevent municipalities from overcharging other towns for Lake Michigan water.


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