Evanston tries to sink water, pipe difficulties

Chris Kirk

Evanston officials are trying to claim as much federal money as they can to replace leaky pipes beneath the city, authorities said.

“We’re getting water out of Lake Michigan, making it drinkable, sending it through these pipes and leaking it all over everywhere, which is environmentally rather unsound,” Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said.

Evanston’s pipes are leaking an estimated 400,000 gallons annually because they are too old, said Lara Biggs, assistant superintendent of the Water and Sewer Department. Of the 157 miles of water pipes in Evanston, 52 miles are pipes that are more than 100 years old.

“The rule of thumb for water main life is 100 years,” Biggs said.

Older pipes not only leak because of primitive and aged joints; they also break more often. Twenty-five to 50 breaks occur a year, most of which occur in the winter, Biggs said.

To fix the pipes, the city must shut down water in an area of the city – usually one or two blocks – leaving residents without water.

Breaks often occur repeatedly in the same areas, which are scattered throughout the city, Biggs said.

“A lot of times people in that block of water main that we’re replacing have been out of water more than once because of a water main break,” Biggs said.

City officials have tried to replace a mile-and-a-half of water main each year, which costs Evanston $3.2 million annually.

“It is a substantial expense to the city,” Biggs said.

The city has kept up with maintenance for several years, Biggs said, but recent budget problems have given officials a new incentive to seek out alternative sources of funding.The mayor and city manager have recently taken a special interest in garnering funds from state and federal governments.

Evanston already claims $1.3 million from the federal government for pipe replacement, three-fourths of which is a zero percent interest loan the city must pay back in 20 years, Biggs said.

“We’ve got some, and we’re looking for more,” Tisdahl said.

She and the city manager lobbied Sen. Roland Burris, Sen. Dick Durbin, Rep. Jan Schakowsky and members of the Environmental Protection Agency for federal money in October.

Tisdahl said it is going to take at least $50 million to completely rehabilitate the city’s water infrastructure.

“We’re going to keep on talking with them,” Tisdahl said. “I know it’s very likely we’re going to try and I think we’ll succeed in gaining some. How much, I don’t know.”

If the federal government doesn’t lend Evanston additional help, the burden will remain on taxpayers’ water bills.

“While we’ve been working diligently to replace them over time, we certainly are looking for as much assistance as we can,” City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said, adding that every dollar earned from the federal and state governments is “one less that we would have to pass on to our rate payers here in Evanston.”

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