Chicago Tribune. November 22, 2021. Editorial: A cool glass of Lake Michigan water. Cheap for some, irrationally expensive for others. How long can you go without water before your blood begins to boil? Can you last a day without showering, water for cooking, toilet flushes? A couple of days? A week? Last month, the small, predominantly Black and Latino south suburb of Dixmoor went roughly two weeks without water. Schools and businesses had to close. A boil order was issued. Residents sought refuge at the homes of relatives or friends, or (assuming they had the resources) checked into a hotel. There’s a couple of potential causes for Dixmoor’s water crisis that have been floating around. It could have been a problem with a feeder main from Harvey, the neighboring south suburb from which Dixmoor buys its water. Or it might have been a water main break in Dixmoor. Or it could have been something else. At the heart of Dixmoor’s plight, however, is this reality: A mostly minority south suburb is paying exorbitantly more for water than much of the rest of the Chicago region, and the tiny hamlet of 3,600 should expect the disparity to only get worse. So should a bevy of other mostly Black or Latino south and west suburban communities. Why? Why should a commodity that everyone needs, a commodity that comes from a source as plentiful as Lake Michigan, be prohibitively expensive for some and relatively cheap for others? The answer lies in the irrational, Kafkaesque way that water gets distributed and priced in the Chicago area. For Chicagoans, Lake Michigan is more than a breathtaking expanse of blue that helps frame their city. It’s a drinking water source that’s relatively inexpensive; city residents are geographically first in line and thus pay rates that don’t break the bank. But what Chicago doesn’t drink and use, it sells to surrounding suburbs. In turn, those communities sell to suburbs farther out-at incrementally higher prices. But why do many south suburbs end up paying the most? Water mains and other components of water distribution infrastructure have been deteriorating for years, even decades, in these communities. Businesses and jobs have fled many south and west suburbs, chipping away at their tax bases and leaving municipalities with dwindling coffers when it comes to money for water infrastructure maintenance and overhauling. Pipes start leaking, which forces towns to charge more. According to a 2017 Tribune investigation, more than 25 billion gallons of lake water leaked out of this region’s system in 2016, costing $44 million. Five west and south suburbs – Burnham, East Hazel Crest, Hometown, Maywood and Posen – lost at least a third of their water supply in 2016. President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure legislation should serve as an obvious source of help. The package includes $55 billion to shore up America’s access to clean drinking water. Dixmoor, Harvey, Maywood and other south and west suburbs with decrepit water infrastructure should be first in line for that money. Exactly how much will be earmarked for the south and west suburbs? Stay tuned. Still, the Chicago area didn’t have to wait this long for relief. As far back as 2018, legislative fixes were on the table in Springfield. One bill would have created a Cook County water infrastructure fund to help pay for system upgrades. The fund would have doled out grants to Cook County suburbs to pay for the overhauls. Another bill proposed in 2019 tackled the glaring inequities in water rates across the Chicago area. That bill would have set up a water rate advisory committee to study the reasons for water rate hikes and brainstorm ways to set more equitable rates. Both bills went nowhere.

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