Without access to a fire hydrant, gardeners struggle to fill the water barrels at Monarch Community Garden. Credit: Provided.

HUMBOLDT PARK — A volunteer-run community garden shelled out $1,700 to meet the city’s new requirements for tapping into a fire hydrant for water.

But halfway through the growing season, the garden still has no access to the water.

Organizers for the Monarch Community Garden, 1050 N. California Ave., have spent months applying for a permit, obtaining new equipment and trying to navigate the byzantine requirements to use city water. But water department officials have been unresponsive, and now the gardeners are being told the city is implementing an entirely new permitting process. 

Garden coordinator Ben Lovitt said dozens of gardeners are relying on a generous neighbor for water and it isn’t clear what they have to do to access city water for their plots. 

“It’s really frustrating. There’s no guidance. There’s no direction. I don’t know if it’s because of lack of leadership in the department,” Lovitt said. “So essentially we’ve had no water. People have had to carry their own jugs of water … .”

In previous years, tapping the hydrants was simple: The city required only a $5 piece of equipment called a vacuum breaker designed to connect to hydrants and protect the city’s water supply from backflow contamination.

The permit to allow Monarch to tap into the hydrants to fill up water barrels for gardeners typically costs about $250 for the season. Last year, the city gave organizers the permit for free.

RELATED: Last Year It Cost $5 For West Side Community Gardens To Tap Into City Water. Now The Price Is $1,700

But the city raised the bar this growing season.

When Lovitt applied for the permit April 21, he was denied. When he called the city, he learned of the city’s expensive new requirements for gardens to use a hydrant.

The $5 vacuum breaker used to connect to the hydrants in previous years no longer cuts it. Instead, gardens were told they would have to use a sturdier backflow prevention device, a reduced pressure zone valve. The valve costs hundreds of dollars, and the city requires it to be installed by a licensed union plumber.

Monarch volunteers scoured the city for a month before they were able to find a plumber that fit the water department’s requirements. After an extended search through their own network and the city’s list of approved contractors, they found only one eligible plumber who knew how to install the valve.

The equipment plus the rate for installation cost $1,500. It was another $200 for a city inspector to certify the work — and all before the price of the permit and the water itself.

A $5 vacuum breaker, left, versus the $1,500 RPZ unit, right. Credit: Provided

By June 18, the valve was installed and Lovitt reapplied for the permit. But the garden didn’t get an approval or denial from the city for weeks.

Lovitt called the water department at the end of June to ask what was going on, and he was told the city was changing the permit process again. None of the gardens that had applied had received the permits, he learned, even though they paid significant sums for the valve.

The garden still has no access to the fire hydrants, and Lovitt was told he would have to reapply once the city forms its new process.

Water department officials did not respond to questions about the delayed process and they provided no information about the shifting permitting requirements.

A spokeswoman said the department has issued six permits to community gardens to use city water this summer. There are more than 800 community gardens in the city, according to the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project, though many gardeners have said they gave up on trying to use city hydrants years ago because the process was too cumbersome.

Members at Global Garden in Albany Park said the water department did not issue their permit to use the hydrants until July 4. A week before then, gardener Kathy Skutecki said she was told the department hadn’t issued any permits yet.

“It seems negligent in the midst of a pandemic where so many people are food insecure to hold up a vital part of maintaining a garden,” Skutecki said. “At this point, in this heat, we’re all just trying to keep things alive. It feels like a losing battle.”

The Monarch garden’s volunteers have relied on a generous neighbor to fill some of the garden’s water barrels for more than two months. In previous years, the garden’s volunteers would use the hydrant each day to fill their six water barrels.

Angela Klipp, the board treasurer for the garden’s nonprofit, said the half-acre garden is one of the largest in the city and has about 100 members needing water. Since the garden is well-established with a large membership base, they were fortunate enough to be able to have the funds to cover the pricey valve.

But Klipp said the high costs and the bureaucratic nightmare of getting the water permit could become impassible barriers for less-experienced or less-resourced gardens.

“These things become cost-, time- and energy-prohibitive,” Klipp said. “These are the things that are going to stop community gardens from forming.”

Residents invested in membership fees, seedlings, soil, equipment and other costs to use the garden, but many will have to take a financial loss and give up on the growing season simply because they can’t get water.

The city has yet to issue the permits needed to draw water from the fire hydrants even after the garden paid $1,700 to install the necessary equipment. Credit: Provided

“People have invested money into growing their things and now cannot get what they need to complete that growing process,” Kilpp said. “In this political and economic climate, that is even more debilitating for them.”

Since the growing season is half over, even if the city fixes the issue and grants the permit, the gardens that rely on the hydrants for a consistent water supply have already missed out on the most productive window of time.

Gardeners would have been better prepared if the city had let them know about the new requirements sooner, Klipp said. If they were notified in the winter or early spring, they could have dealt with the valve installation and permit process before the prime growing season, Klipp said.

“Most people look forward to growing … things like tomatoes and peppers that take a long time,” Klipp said. “Even with jumping through these hoops as quickly as humanly possible, we still cannot access the water. … It makes me feel forsaken by the government.”

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

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