The raised beds at the Madison Street Garden are managed by John Perryman. Credit: Provided

NORTH LAWNDALE — New city regulations have left community gardens high and dry when it comes to getting the water they need for produce to thrive.

Until recently, gardeners were able to tap a hose into fire hydrants using a vacuum breaker, a piece of equipment that costs about $5 and is designed to prevent water from flowing back into the city’s pipes and contaminating the system. But now the city requires community gardens to install a sturdier piece of equipment to connect to the hydrants, costing gardeners as much as $1,700.

That change triggers such a drastic cost spike for community gardening that it risks pricing out people who most benefit from the gardens, advocates said.

“We’re looking at thousands of dollars right now to be able to get the permit,” said Viviana Gentry Fernández-Pellón, program director for Advocates for Urban Agriculture. “The cost has just increased so exorbitantly that it’s just it really not financially feasible for people who are just trying to grow a little bit of their own food.”

The mandated device, called a reduced pressure zone valve, starts at about $300. It is designed to prevent water from flowing back into the city’s drinking water system and potentially contaminating it, said Department of Water Management spokeswoman Megan Vidis.

The valves also need to be installed by a licensed union plumber, then inspected by the water department, Fernández-Pellón said. That raises the cost to start tapping water from a hydrant from $5 to at least $1,700, she said.

After the initial installation, the city also requires the reduced pressure zone valve to be recertified twice a year, tacking on an additional $150 each time.

With so many people out of work because of coronavirus, Fernández-Pellón said the timing for the new rules couldn’t be worse. The new barriers to accessing water will have “a significant effect in the way that people are able to address their own food insecurity,” she said.

Vidis said the city plans to address the impacts of the new rules on food insecurity in the near future.

“The city is committed to helping Chicagoans grow their own food, particularly during these unprecedented times, and there will be meetings with stakeholder groups in the coming weeks to review the costs of hydrant access,” Vidis said in a statement.

The new costs were an unwelcome surprise for Gardeneers, a Lawndale-based gardening nonprofit that provides school gardens with ongoing support. The group had planned on spending only a few dollars for vacuum breakers. The squeeze of the pandemic makes the unexpected cost to access water even more “inaccessible,” said Plus Sign, who helped manage the group’s garden at North Lawndale College Prep.

“A lot of our employees had to be furloughed. We weren’t able to pay our regular salaries. So that’s hard enough,” Sign said. “We’ve been spending the whole pandemic trying to getting money from either the government or private foundations who are helping out with COVID relief.”

With no room in the budget to pay for the valve, Sign said employees have had to foot the bill. But Sign said many other gardens in the Lawndale area might not be able to afford the valve.

Gardens have an enormous benefit to the community beyond food access: They improve mental health, reduce crime, foster kinship between neighbors and expand green space, Sign said.

“It will affect the people who need the food most desperately, the most negatively,” Sign said. “I think it’ll create the most barriers for people who stand to benefit the most from vacant lots and from access to water and being able to grow their own food and connect around it.”

John Perryman, who manages the Madison Street Garden in East Garfield Park, said the new rules will halt the creation of community gardens in the West Side’s abundant vacant lots. Perryman said most gardens help maintain city-owned land that would otherwise become overgrown, trash-filled eyesores to the surrounding community.

“People wonder why the West Side is in such a mess, but it’s because people don’t get support from the city government,” Perryman said.

Years ago, when the city had a dedicated environmental department, Perryman said everything needed to run a community garden was free. When he started Madison Street Garden, the department provided him the tools to tap into hydrants, a budget for plants, a designer to develop the vacant lot and a crew to help install everything.

“Now there’s no one we can go to for help,” Perryman said. “We need the Department of Environment to come back.”

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The Madison Street Garden transitioned away from using city water two years ago when the water department took away the adapter it initially provided to tap into the hydrant. After fighting hopelessly with city bureaucracy to get hydrant access reinstated, Perryman gave up and began filling rain barrels at the garden from a hose connected to his home.

The shift has cost Perryman around $400 each growing season, more than half the garden’s whole budget.

“We’re bringing fresh food to our community,” Perryman said. “It’s so frustrating that the city continues to take from the West Side. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything else they can take. And then they take something else.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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