Chicago water has been in the news a lot lately, from lead pipes poisoning our communities to racism, sexism, and homophobia at the Department of Water Management. But there’s another serious problem with Chicagoland’s water that needs attention—skyrocketing prices.
Over the last decade, Chicago water and sewer bills have tripled, from $169 a year in 2008 to $550 a year now for 60,000 gallons. Even worse, a new proposed utility tax would increase bills by another $74 a year for a typical household. For the 17 percent of Chicago households that survive on less than $15,000 a year, the typical water bill is already unaffordable. These high water prices force many families to choose between water and other essentials like groceries or electricity.
To solve this problem, Food & Water Watch has partnered with Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who introduced the Chicago Water-For-All Ordinance last November. The ordinance would aid families with annual household incomes less than twice the federal poverty line, or $50,200 for a family of four. The cost of the program would be borne by commercial and industrial users, so it would not affect the city’s ability to pay for other critical services or raise water rates on middle class Chicagoans. As water bills continue to rise, the ordinance would make sure that the poorest Chicagoans are protected from shutoffs.
The ordinance has other benefits as well. For starters, it ensures democracy and accountability, requiring two-thirds approval of voters before the city can sell, lease, transfer or outsource the water system. This protection is crucial because the mayor’s office considered privatizing Chicago’s water back in 2015. As the experience of many communities has shown, privatized water is a bad deal for consumers, leading to rate increases and poor service. The Chicago Water-For-All Ordinance would put power in Chicagoans’ hands and protect against privatization.
The ordinance also ensures equity in capital improvements, including lead service line replacements. Lead poisoning—exposure to a dangerous neurotoxin that harms every major system of the human body—is “up to six times higher than the city average in some pockets of poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods,” according to the Chicago Tribune. On average, tap water makes up an estimated 10 to 20 percent of children’s exposure to lead, but for infants, it can account for more than 85 percent of their lead exposure. Older neighborhoods are more likely to have lead service lines and often disproportionately comprise low-income households and people of color. Chicago has big plans for infrastructure development in the coming years and given the existing disparities, low-income communities and communities of color need to be prioritized to address health disparities.
The Water-For-All Ordinance would require the water department to create a plan to ensure “equitable and just implementation of capital improvements” to reduce “health, economic, and access disparities.” And to ensure the plan is carried out, the ordinance requires the creation of an advisory board, made up of community groups, public health agencies, nonprofits, unions, and the school district, which would keep the department accountable. The ordinance also requires the department to “include provisions for local job training and employment opportunities,” in poor communities.
Despite its obvious benefits, the Chicago City Council has not yet passed the ordinance. This refusal to put Chicagoans first may be business as usual for the City, but families won’t stand for it for much longer. Access to fresh, clean water is a basic human right, and it’s far past time for the City Council to recognize that. Food & Water Watch is committed to standing with Chicago families until the Water-For-All Ordinance passes.
If you live in Chicago, let your alderman know that you support the Water-For-All Ordinance to protect Chicagoans from skyrocketing water bills.