Faced with the massive task of replacing every lead water line service in their villages, elected officials in both Brookfield and Riverside have begun figuring just how much such an effort will cost – and who ultimately will pay for it, and how.
At the beginning of 2022, a new Illinois law – the Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act — went into effect, mandating that owners of any water supply must create an inventory of all lead service lines by 2023 and submit a preliminary plan in 2024 to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to replace all of them.
The final replacement plan isn’t due in to the state until 2027, and municipalities will have a further 20 years to get all of those lead service lines replaced. However, even for small towns like Riverside and Brookfield it promises to be an enormously expensive and invasive task.
The vast majority of homes in Chicago’s inner suburbs have lead water service lines, which weren’t outlawed until 1986. Drinking water is made safe by adding phosphates, which coat the interior of lead pipes, to the water supply.
Cost estimates from each village’s engineering firm vary, with Riverside’s village engineer, Orion Galey, telling officials last month he estimates it will cost $7,500 to replace the average lead service line from the water main to a building’s water meter. Brookfield Village Engineer Derek Treichel, meanwhile, estimated the replacement cost as up to $12,000.
Riverside has 3,000 lead water services, and Brookfield has about 5,500, meaning the total cost for replacing water service lines, based on each engineer’s estimate for each village, would be around $22 million and more than $60 million, respectively.
Neither village has the capacity to fund such a project with present revenues. And while it would appear there’s plenty of time to come up with a solution since a final replacement plan isn’t due until 2027, officials are actually in a bit of a bind.
The state’s law mandates municipalities to replace the entire lead water service – from the water main to the water meter – if any portion of a line is scheduled for replacement. That means when Brookfield installs a new water main on 26th Place this summer, workers must not only replace the “public” lead service line that runs from the main to the Buffalo box in the parkway. They must also replace the “private” lead service line from the Buffalo box to the water meter inside the home.
In the past, municipalities were able to replace whatever section of service line was being disturbed. That’s not allowed any longer, unless a property owner signs a refusal, which will be submitted to the IEPA.
With a water main project just over the horizon in the spring and with emergency repairs triggering full replacement popping up at any time in Riverside and Brookfield, officials are weighing what burden property owners will bear for replacing the “private” service lines and how to impose it without creating an undue hardship.
The IEPA does offer low-interest loans, which are forgivable, through its State Revolving Fund. The IEPA is telling municipalities that they can apply for as much as $4 million annually in loans, which can be used for lead service line replacement.
However, right now there’s no way to know how much money will be made available by the state annually for the program and competition for those funds is likely to be intense.
“I really don’t have a best guess as to how much funding municipalities can expect,” Treichel told the Landmark. “It will depend on the demand and how much money is appropriated each year.”
Some municipalities, including Berwyn and River Forest, already have lead service line replacement programs in place, where homeowners can apply to be reimbursed for up to $2,500 of the cost for replacing the “private” portion of the line.
Another way to help build a fund for lead service line replacement is to increase water fees. Riverside already has some of the highest water fees in the area and Brookfield recently increased its fees to fund a massive water main replacement campaign.
“There’s going to be a decision on how we equitably handle [costs], how do we use grant funding to replace all of one person’s water service when we can’t guarantee that we’re going to have the funds to replace everybody’s water service,” Treichel told Brookfield trustees March 14. “So over the next month, that’s what staff will be working on, so we’ll have some recommendations for the board.”
In February, the Riverside Village Board directed staff not to bill any homeowner required to replace a lead service line because it needed repair. However, that does not mean water customers won’t be on the hook for a portion of the cost down the line.
Riverside Village Manager Jessica Frances in February told village trustees that staff could start tracking service line replacement projects and costs and start projecting costs.
[We could say] this is something that’s going to be funded through the water and sewer fund [and] recognizing that we’ll hopefully get some funding through EPA loans, but that we may have to tweak up our water rates to have to pay for these lead service lines,” Frances said.
“I think that becomes a little more palatable of paying more monthly versus having to pay $7,500 to have your entire line be replaced.”
Frances did say officials needed to also confront the fact that some property owners have already changed out their lead service lines – at their own expense. It’s unclear how officials will end up dealing with that part of the equation.
Trustee Edward Hannon said he felt the village ought to draw a distinction between those needing to replace service lines due to an emergency versus those who voluntarily replace the line for a non-emergency reason.
“There’s no exactly fair way to do it,” Riverside Trustee Doug Pollock said. “So let’s say for a year we pay for it. We’re not paying for it, the other customers are paying for it. Then if we get [grant] funding the other customers are no longer paying for it. … If we don’t get the funding, we’re going to have to raise our water rates.”