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Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park

With A ‘Save The Trees’ Ordinance On The Horizon, What Happens Next For Water Main Projects?

Aldermen and neighbors want a temporary hold on tree removal until the ordinance can be voted on in September.

Some trees in Edgewater have already been cut down. But neighbors are hoping to save the trees currently slated for removal.
Jonathan Ballew/Block Club Chicago
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EDGEWATER — When Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) and Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) introduced a “Save The Trees” ordinance last week, it was a victory for Edgewater residents who have been working to save nearly century-old trees slated to be cut down to make way for new water mains.

But the ordinance, which now has 34 aldermen backing it, can’t be voted on until at least September when the City Council is back in session. In the meantime, many residents are wondering what that means for water main projects already in motion. 

“We’re feeling vulnerable,” said Lesley Ames, East Andersonville Resident Council’s Tree Committee chairperson.

Ames said her committee sent a letter to Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) asking him for more information.

“I still feel like our trees are not safe,” she said. “They have big green X’s on them and September is a long time away.”

If it passes, the ordinance would require the city’s Water Department to take another look at a water main repair technology called CIPP (cured-in-place pipe). The city would be asked to conduct an expansive pilot to determine the feasibility of CIPP.

A full report would be required to be delivered to the City Council by July 1, 2020. Additionally, a hold would be placed on all current water main projects that would require trees to be removed.

CIPP is less invasive than a straight water main replacement, which requires digging up the entire stretch of the main to remove and replace it. CIPP inserts a liner inside existing mains, and requires less digging.

Credit: Jonathan Ballew/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Osterman (left) and neighbors listen to a water management representative describe the excavation process for replacing water lines.

The city’s Water Department piloted a program to try out CIPP in 2017. But the department abandoned the technology after the pilot. Contractors who worked on that project contend the test was too small, doomed to fail and not a good example of how the cured-in-place pipe should be installed.

The news of the proposed ordinance came just days after a Block Club Chicago report on the city’s reluctance to embrace CIPP technology, despite cities such as Toronto, Rockford and Evanston using it.

What happens before the ordinance can be voted on?

So what about projects already in motion? Are some of Edgewater’s trees in danger of falling?

Hopkins said the ordinance would stop trees from falling, but in the meantime, Vasquez, who has trees at risk in his ward, could request a hold on tree removal from Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

“If the ordinance passes it would take the form of an order that would suspend the projects that have an impact on trees while the study is being completed,” said Hopkins. 

Vasquez said he is currently working on a letter to Lightfoot asking her to put a hold on any tree removal “pending the passage of the ordinance.”

However, if Lightfoot decided to grant Vasquez’s request, it would be as a courtesy. There is no legal requirement for Lightfoot to do so and all Water Department projects could continue if Lightfoot doesn’t grant the request.

What happens if the ordinance passes?

If the ordinance passes it would mean some radical changes to the Water Department’s entire construction schedule, said Hopkins.

Essentially, it would grind all Water Department work to a halt while projects are reevaluated to determine if they are a candidate for CIPP.

Lightfoot told Block Club she is “currently reviewing” the “Save The Trees” ordinance. Her office would not say whether or not she supported it. 

Currently, 34 of 50 alderman have signed onto the ordinance, giving it a good chance to pass. 

A City Hall official told Block Club that Lightfoot still has not placed any type of hold or moratorium on tree removal. 

Credit: Jonathan Ballew/Block Club Chicago
Where trees used to line this Edgewater street, now only stumps remain.

Vasquez said there are over 113 Water Department projects being conducted in his ward alone. He is currently working with the Water Department to determine how many could be affected by the new ordinance. 

And what about contracts for already scheduled projects? That shouldn’t be a problem either, said Hopkins.

Hopkins said if CIPP is determined to be a suitable method for repairing water mains in conflict with trees, old city contracts won’t be an issue. He said the city puts “contingencies” in their contracts that give them flexibility. 

“As long as the project hasn’t actually commenced work we can notify the contractor that we are going to be going in a different direction,” he said. “I would not anticipate any issues in doing so.”

In Edgewater, Ames said she is hoping to see action from aldermen and Lightfoot. She said neighbors will continue fighting until they are certain their trees are safe.

“I’d like to see a moratorium or a hold placed on any projects that cuts trees down,” said Ames. “Can we be assured that our trees are safe until September?”

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