Chicago's decaying water system is delivering disparate rates

Nov 9, 2017

Chicago's water infrastructure is in decay, according to a two-part report in the Chicago Tribune. The report details a state of crumbling infrastructure and widespread pricing disparity in the distribution of municipal water around the Lake Michigan region. Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Patrick O'Connell, one of the journalists who reported the story, about the toll this has taken on minority communities who often pay several times what affluent neighborhoods pay for a basic human resource. An edited transcript of their conversation follows. 

Kai Ryssdal: Do me a favor and give me the 30,000-foot view of the Lake Michigan-Chicago water infrastructure, if you would.

Patrick O'Connell: Absolutely. So, what we found was that there's a wide disparity of what Chicagoans and Chicago suburbanites pay for their water. There's a wide network of towns that get their water from Lake Michigan. Some of them get them from Chicago, some of them it goes through a series of two or three towns. Sometimes there's markups in the wholesale rates because of that, and then it's passed on to consumers. But sometimes that's not the case. How far you are away from Lake Michigan doesn't always correspond with how much you pay for water.

Ryssdal: There's also the problem, in addition to the rate-paying disparity, which is enormous and egregious, there's just an unbelievable amount of water just being wasted.

O'Connell: Absolutely. We found that there are towns that lose upwards of 35 to 38 percent of their water. And towns have a really hard time finding out where their water goes and making sure that their pipes are up to speed technologically and how water gets delivered to people.

Ryssdal: Get me back to, for a second, the disparity in communities and what they pay. You guys found African-Americans pay a disproportionately higher set of rates than more affluent communities do. There are some great anecdotes in this piece. The guy whose water got cut off, I think, while he was doing his dishes, right?

O'Connell: Yes. So we we found a man and interviewed him, Robert Hilton is his name, and he came home and tried to do his dishes and found out that his water was off. That's a problem that we found with a lot of people, especially in minority and less affluent communities, is that they have a hard time paying these skyrocketing water bills, and then their water would get shut off. And then, the other problem we had with that was residents were not being able to pay the high amounts that these towns would charge to have their water reconnected, finding themselves deeper and deeper in this hole for a basic resource.

Ryssdal: Just to widen this out a little bit, and I know it wasn't a focus of your reporting, but Chicago and the surrounding area is not the only place in the country where water infrastructure is in terrible terrible shape.

O'Connell: That's true. And we focused obviously on Chicago because Lake Michigan is a precious resource and there's been, over time, a fight about who has access to it. This is something that the surrounding states that border Lake Michigan and all of the Great Lakes are very protective of. So when other states try to come in and say, "Hey, we're having a problem getting water," Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and so on are saying, "No, this is only for our residents." And so it is a problem nationwide, you're right. 

 

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