The State of Water Infrastructure in Illinois

More and more emergency situations are arising from substandard water infrastructure, with the tragedy in Flint drawing national attention to this critical issue.

By Colleen Smith
Legislative Director, Illinois Environmental Council

On May 17th, nearly 160,000 Illinois residents faced a 35-hour water shortage, with nine counties being declared disaster areas. The culprit of this chaos? A single burst pipe.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. More and more emergency situations are arising from substandard water infrastructure, with the tragedy in Flint drawing national attention to this critical issue.

Whereas potholes and crumbling bridges act as visible signs of needed repair and investment in transportation infrastructure, deficiencies in our water system often go unseen. This lack of visibility seems to translate to less attention, as upgrades to our transportation system are frequently mentioned as a top goal for a capital plan in Illinois, but repairing and upgrading drinking water and stormwater infrastructure are not.

According to Metropolitan Planning Council, Illinois has a $32 billion projected need over the next 20 years for drinking, stormwater, wastewater infrastructure.  And comparisons of states shows that Illinois has the highest drinking water project need in the Midwest. To address these needs, any capital plan passed in Illinois should include dedicated funding for lead service line replacement and to address water loss.

Just as potholes on our roads represent a safety risk, decaying water infrastructure poses a serious threat to public health. It is estimated that ⅛ of all lead service lines in the nation are located in Illinois, and in Chicago alone there may be nearly 450,000 lead service lines. Yet, very few communities are taking the initiative to replace lead service lines.

Illinois currently uses State Revolving Funds to help communities upgrade water systems, including the Water Pollution Control Loan Program (WPCLP) for wastewater projects and the Public Water Supply Loan Program (PWSLP) for drinking water projects. These are loans that can be repaid at relatively low interest rates. Over the last few years, Illinois has not taken the initiative to expand bond funds that are available for this program. Even when those funds are available, many communities cannot afford the upfront costs to apply, and often struggle to overcome other barriers, such as costly engineering studies.

As a result, cities like Maywood, Illinois, where 20% of the population lives below the poverty line, are unable to adequately invest in their water infrastructure.  Their system “loses about 38 percent of its water to leaking valves and pipes — an expense ultimately passed on to residents in their water bills, which are among the highest in the Chicago region.” Maywood is not alone in facing this problem: Illinois has nearly 1,800 Community Water Supply systems that supply drinking water to more than 12 million people.

We cannot wait any longer to address the infrastructure needs of our water systems across Illinois. Communities across Illinois must begin to think comprehensively about management of water assets, as well as long term needs and costs.  Public water systems must also adopt rates that recover the full-costs of delivered services.

In 2018, IEC worked with partners to introduce SB3080/HB5044, which would address lead service line replacement and water loss.  We urge the General Assembly to increase the requirements of community water system to address drinking water infrastructure to protect public health and the environment, and prioritize funding of this infrastructure through a capital plan.

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