What suburbs charge for water varies wildly
BY CHRIS FUSCO, ART GOLAB AND TIM NOVAK Staff Reporters Oct 9, 2010
West suburban Riverside charges $9.76 per 1,000 gallons of water the highest in the Chicago area because it has to pay for upgrades to its pumping system.
Chicago supplies Lake Michigan water to 125 suburbs at a cost of $2.01 for every 1,000 gallons.
Oak Park is among the closest. Nine miles west of the lakefront, the village sells Chicago water to its residents for more than double what it pays: $4.85 for every 1,000 gallons.
Homeowners in Naperville get their water from Chicago, too. And even though they live some 30 miles from Chicago's water-treatment plant, they pay 35 percent less -- $3.17 per 1,000 gallons -- than their counterparts in Oak Park.
How is this possible-
Oak Park has been buying water from Chicago since 1912, so its 105 miles of water mains, water meters and reservoirs are older and need more repairs.
Naperville grew rapidly beginning in the 1980s, making it a "relatively young" water system that doesn't need as much fixing, said Jim Holzapfel, the city's director of water and wastewater. Naperville also buys its Chicago water through the DuPage Water Commission, an agency subsidized by county sales taxes.
"Every utility is different," Holzapfel said. "The age of the utility, how the utility was constructed . . . there's a lot of things that go into it."
All of those things drastically affect what people pay for water from the lake, a new state study shows.
Residents in Riverside pay the most -- $9.76 per 1,000 gallons -- thanks in large part to the village converting its antiquated gravity-based distribution system to a modern pumping system starting in 1999. Maywood ($9.18), Lyons ($8.34), Matteson ($8.20) and Palos Park ($8.15) have the next four highest municipal water rates.
Meanwhile, suburbs that draw their water directly from Lake Michigan pay the least. They include Evanston ($2.03 per 1,000 gallons), Highland Park ($2.25) and Waukegan ($2.28).
On average, the 190 municipalities and utility companies that tap Lake Michigan are charging residents $5.22 per 1,000 gallons, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' 2010 water-rate survey. That's 8.6 percent more than they charged for water five years ago, when the state last surveyed rates.
About two-thirds of the communities included in the survey buy their water from Chicago, where Mayor Daley and the City Council raised rates 68 cents, or 50 percent, between 2005 and this year.
Under state law, the city sells water to the suburbs at the same rate it charges Chicago residents and business owners who have meters: $2.01 for every 1,000 gallons.
Chicago, however, doesn't bill all of its residents at that rate. More than 70 percent of Chicago single-family homes and two-flats don't have meters, meaning tens of thousands of them -- by the city's own admission -- are being charged flat rates and paying more than they need to for water. Conversely, large households that use lots of water can take advantage of those flat rates and pay less.
Regardless, Chicago's water rate sets off a regional domino effect. The suburbs who buy water from the city automatically pass on the city's rate to their customers and then tack on additional fees to cover water transmission, storage, metering and personnel costs.
Whether Chicago plans to raise rates in 2011 is an open question. The city usually announces its intentions in November, suburban water officials said.
In Riverside, home of the highest municipal rate for Lake Michigan water, village leaders have borrowed money on multiple occasions to modernize the suburb's water system.
"The village issued bonds in 1999 to de-commission our water-tower campus and then also change the system from a gravity system to a pumped system," Village Manager Peter Scalera said. However, "by changing it, certain areas experienced spikes in pressure and water-main breaks, and in 2003 there were additional bonds issued to fix those problems."
In some suburbs, water gets subsidized by other revenue sources. The DuPage Water Commission, which sells Chicago water to more than 30 municipalities and utility companies -- including Naperville -- gets additional funding from a .25 percent countywide sales tax that's set to expire in 2016 under a new state law. That tax nets the water system about $35 million annually.