Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), Mayor Brandon Johnson and representatives of FEMA meet with West Side neighbors to assess damage and impact of recent flooding in Austin on July 25, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — A West Side alderperson whose constituents were hit hard by summer storms and flooding laid into the water department’s leadership at a budget hearing this week, demanding officials do more to protect the city from the impacts of climate change.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose West Side ward was devastated by flooding in July, and other budget committee members urged the department during Thursday’s hearing to ramp up its work to prevent severe flooding, which is likely to worsen amid the climate change crisis.

The 2024 budget proposal recommends about $398 million for the Department of Water Management, of which 71 percent would be paid for through the city’s water fund.

The department would employ nearly 2,500 employees, more than 1,400 of whom are workers who maintain and repair mains, catch basins and manholes to keep Chicago’s water and sewers flowing.

Mitts took water Commissioner Andrea Cheng to task after Cheng’s opening budget statement failed to address how the department would prioritize West Siders who are still dealing with the damage and fallout from summer floods.

“We talk about disasters around the country — we had one right there in the 37th Ward for sure,” Mitts said. “… I just got sick when I don’t see nothing there [in Cheng’s statement] for the West Side. It makes me sick to my stomach.”

The department has been cleaning catch basins in Mitts’ ward — as well as the 28th and 29th wards, which were also hard hit by flooding — since August, Cheng said.

Crews are about 40 percent done with that project and will complete it by the end of the year, then move to clean out West Side sewer mains early next year, she said.

Mitts continued to voice her frustrations, saying she called water officials for help during the July floods and pushed them to initiate the West Side cleaning projects, rather than the water department taking initiative.

“I realize that, Commissioner,” Mitts said after Cheng gave updates on the cleaning’s progress. “I made the call and said, ‘I want all these sewers cleaned.’ I made the call. It wasn’t because the department came out and said, ‘We’re going to clean these sewers for you’ and reached out to me.

“We have a whole department and we’re spending all these tax dollars,” the alderperson said. “What do you want me to tell my constituents? … I want the department to have some compassion about how they utilize their resources.”

In response to the July flooding, the department is developing a West Side pilot program to explore how to use green spaces to retain stormwater in an effort to decrease the burden on the sewer system, according to the budget overview.

Cheng did address efforts to address flooding more broadly in her opening comments to the budget committee, highlighting plans to create “underground rainwater storage projects on side streets in areas where not many utilities are present,” she said. The storage will help alleviate basement flooding risks, Cheng said.

The water department also received a federal grant in 2023 to continue planning for an 8-mile tunnel and other sewer system relief for South Side communities, officials said.

Standing water pools in the street at Kostner Avenue and Roosevelt Road in North Lawndale after heavy rainfall in early July 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Another pressing project for the department involves replacing dangerous lead service lines that bring water to city properties from the water mains. That effort has sped up this year following a glacial start, after a state law forced the city to replace all lead service lines connected to a water main under repair.

City crews have replaced 3,652 lead service lines with copper pipes to date, and they aim to complete 4,500 in total by the end of the year. The goal is to replace 8,000 more lines by the end of 2024, Cheng said Thursday.

Chicago has until 2077 to replace the estimated 400,000 lead lines citywide, under state law. The city “would like to get it done faster than that,” but funding and workforce development will be crucial barriers to overcome as the city does not have enough contractors, Cheng said.

“The whole state of Illinois, the plumber-to-lead-service-line ratio is lower than any other state,” Cheng said. “It’s something we’ve had a lot of conversations with the plumbers union and the whole state about how you create more plumbers.”

Some budget committee members called for officials to communicate better with aldermanic offices about water main replacements, planned water shutoffs and other scheduled work, so that information can be shared with residents ahead of time.

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