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City’s Plan To Fix Water Mains And Save Trees Cheered By Aldermen. Could Fixing Lead Pipes Be Next?

Ald. Brian Hopkins, who co-sponsored an ordinance to force the city to try "cured-in-place pipe" liners in existing mains, said perhaps some day it could ease the city's lead pipe issues.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) draftd an ordinance that would have forced the Water Dept. into re-testing cured-in-place pipe technology to fix water mains.
Jonathan Ballew/Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said he felt like “a voice in the wilderness” for years as he unsuccessfully advocated for repairing old city water mains without cutting down all of the mature trees in the way.

So when the city said Thursday it would launch pilot programs on a technology that inserts a resin liner into existing water mains, preventing the need to dig long trenches and cut down trees, he was pumped.

“We’re ready to get this started,” Hopkins said Friday. “I’m raising my hand to volunteer. I’d like to see this in my ward, under controlled conditions where it can be monitored. And have a true test with accurate results.”

But it’s not just about saving trees and lessening the hassle that massive water main replacement projects inevitably bring, Hopkins said.

If the city can successfully use the liners — known as “cured-in-place pipe” or CIPP — for large water mains, the technology could possibly one day be altered to repair the miles and miles of underground lead pipes leading into people’s homes. Digging up and replacing the pipes now would come at a “staggering” cost to the city, not to mention the massive disruption to residents.

“Right now if we have the funding, which we don’t, we would have dig up every front yard in the city,” he said. “Could you imagine a more disruptive project than that?”

For now, the city plans to test out the CIPP technology in two half-mile stretches of water mains in the city, as well as in some sewer drains leading from homes into the city’s sewer lines.

The CIPP process pulls a resin-coated liner through existing underground water mains. Holes are dug at distant intervals to insert the liner, saving the trees in between. Under pressure, the liner seals the inside of the main, extending the life of underground pipes for 50 to 80 years.

CIPP is a technology that’s been used successfully for years in other cities, including Toronto, Rockford, Evanston and Arlington Heights.

But Chicago gave up on the technology after a brief 2017 pilot program that tested out just 300 feet of liners in pipes on the Southeast Side. Critics have contended that pilot was flawed from the start and not a true test of the technology. Hopkins, in fact, said unknown vandals sabotaged the project, leading in part to the city deciding not to pursue CIPP.

After Block Club reported on the aborted pilot despite the other cities using CIPP, Hopkins and Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) drafted an ordinance that would have forced the Water Dept. into re-testing CIPP and putting a moratorium on tree removal while awaiting the results.

RELATED: As Other Cities Replace Water Lines Without Tearing Up Streets And Trees, Chicago Refuses To Try It: ‘The Old Chicago Way’ At Work, Critics Say

They had more than enough votes to pass the ordinance, according to Hopkins, but will shelve it now that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration announced it would launch pilot programs next spring. The pilot programs were first reported by Block Club Chicago early Friday.

Hopkins said he moved off his demand for a tree-cutting moratorium after learning the reality that some trees need to come down regardless of the way the water mains are fixed. That’s because some root systems penetrate or surround the mains, and any repair process can damage the roots to the point of creating a hazard of the tree falling, he said.

Credit: Jonathan Ballew/Block Club Chicago
Some trees in Edgewater have already been cut down. But neighbors are hoping to save the trees currently slated for removal.

But the pressure asserted by the proposed ordinance and the public outcry over tree removal, he said, helped the city raise its bar on determining if a tree truly needs to be felled.

In revealing the new pilot program, the city also announced it would bring in a third-party consultant to run the tests, analyze the results and give recommendations on using CIPP for more work.

Hopkins cheered that oversight, saying the damage done to the original pilot program “did raise eyebrows” that the pilot program had been intentionally sabotaged to undermine its results. Hopkins noted the culprit was never found.

City Water Commissioner Randy Conner, facing heat from aldermen for not using CIPP, said that shelving the 2017 pilot wasn’t a mistake, and he said he’s welcoming in the third party consultant if it’s what’s best for the city.

“It’s not something that’s being forced,” Conner said of the pilot, adding his department had already been looking at the technology. “We’re always try to find new technology, something new to put in the toolbox.”

Conner said which ward or wards will get the pilot projects hasn’t been decided. That decision will depend on finding the right aging section of water main to test, he said.

The cost of the pilot also hasn’t been determined, he said.

Hopkins said he’s eager to get neighbors involved in the process, as they are the ones who will be most impacted. They also could get the chance to be part of a pilot that changes the trajectory of the way Chicago fixes underground pipes for years to come, he said.

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

Ald. Vasquez, who joined the City Council this year, said that he and his colleagues banding together pushed the city to act.

“This came about as a result of the ordinance that we drafted,” he said. “I think the city saw how many co-sponsors we got on the floor for ours so they knew there was a need for it. …

“I’m pretty excited that this is the first piece of legislation our office introduced, and to see it lead to this result is really amazing,” Vasquez said. “This pilot came about as a result of our office being responsive to our neighbors’ needs and it lets me know what else we can do like this going forward.”

Reporter Alex V. Hernandez contributed to this report.

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