News - DeKalb County

Sycamore city officials respond to continued complaints about water, council to talk plan Oct. 5

The Sycamore water tower off of Main Street.

SYCAMORE – As residents continue to come forward expressing dismay at the quality of water in their homes, the Sycamore City Council will deliberate on a plan to begin addressing the issues in their meeting Oct. 5, City Manager Brian Gregory said.

Gregory said the council will debate a consideration on the agenda at their next meeting to assess whether to move forward with a master plan to overhaul the water system as part of a larger infrastructure improvement project, which would be paid, in part, through an added $3.50 water fee per Sycamore house’s water utility bill.

“We’ll go through the master plan, the infrastructure plan, very similar to what we did back in February,” Gregory said. “And also revisit discussion about a fee that would be required to begin to implement the suggested improvements that were outlined in the water master plan.”

Although no vote was taken during Monday’s council meeting regarding the city’s water well system, several residents spoke during public comment, including Diana Glass.

“I own a home on Washington Place and rent to a family that has complained to me about the awful smell and possible health problems concerning the water,” Glass said. “It cannot be used for drinking, making coffee, ice cubes or brushing teeth. The whole house smells when washing dishes or washing clothes.”

In a letter read by Gregory, Glass echoed what many of her fellow Sycamore residents have declared for months – that the water in their homes (many in the city’s older neighborhoods) has a foul-smelling odor like rotten eggs or sulfur. Many say they’ve complained to the city for years with no result. Some residents say they’ve spent thousands of dollars of their own money to try and redo plumbing, buy new water heaters or softeners to no avail.

“In 2018 when the street was being replaced, I hired a plumber to replace the water and sewer lines going to the house at a total cost of $13,200,” Glass said. “That includes an additional $2,200 of work because the city codes are so strict. I also replaced the water heater at a cost of $1,100, and the water still smells awful. I’ve done all I can do. I want to know what the city is going to do and when.”

City response

City officials say Sycamore’s water quality as a whole meets safety standards set by the state, and while the odors and other issues that come alongside it are being reported by residents, public works crews have not yet identified what could be causing the problem in the city’s older streets.

Gregory and Matt Anderson, the city’s assistant public works director, reiterated the city’s water quality is compliant with standards set down by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The city’s water treatment includes radium removal, a phosphate blend to isolate chlorine, a fluoride treatment and a chlorine treatment for all 115.4 miles of water main. The city reports levels of all those chemicals to the IEPA monthly, officials said.

“I’ve met with other residents on Edwards Street and went over what we’re doing, what we’re trying to do,” Andersen said. “The things, we’re aware of, new things we’re not. Like I said, the water is safe, and if there’s odor at times we’re trying to figure out why. It’s certain areas.”

Gregory said the City Council in 2019 approved a water master plan, which would have dedicated $11.2 million to overhauling the city’s water system, paid in part by a special fee which would have been placed on residents’ water bills.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the fee was deferred, although discussion on the matter will be taken up again this fall.

Some residents have since stepped forward with concerns over lead in their water, after conducting at-home water tests of their own.

When asked whether the city was aware of residents’ concerns regarding water safety and possible lead contamination before the approval of the master plan, Anderson said the city’s Public Works crews have water tested regularly, including the EPA-mandated lead and copper samples every three years.

The city conducted that testing most recently this past June, he said.

“When you find lead in water, generally it’s from internal plumbing, fixtures, service line, that kind of thing,” Anderson said. “We did that this June and all 30 were under the limit.”

By that, Anderson means the EPA-standards, which require lead levels in water to be under 15 parts per billion.

Some residents have come forward expressing concern about tests they’ve had done on their home water which show lead present, but Anderson and Gregory said while the ideal amount of lead is always zero, levels in Sycamore’s neighborhoods remain within the safety standards set by the EPA.

“The EPA regulates the water system and sets the criteria,” Gregory said. “We consistently meet or exceed the EPA standards.”

What’s next

The city of Sycamore already had a plan to overhaul its wastewater treatment plant as part of a larger goal for improving infrastructure, Gregory said, and that plan was approved in 2019.

In the meantime, public works crews are working with area residents who’ve come forward with complaints to see if they can identify the sources of the smell.

Anderson, who started working with the city of Sycamore in late 2018, said the city during that time did identify areas impacted by water with a bad smell. He said efforts to identify the source included water tests, valve replacements and more.

“There were areas that had been identified previously of having some smell complaints at time,” he said. “We’d done some auto flushers to help mitigate those complaints. So if it’s a truly [water] main issue, the main’s there all the time. So is it a flow issue? Is it a temperature issue with chlorine and chlorine demand? So we have been working diligently to try to figure out again what is the root cause and ideally what we would like to do is remedy that.”

Another issue, Anderson said, is older homes or owner-occupied residential areas, and the lead-lines service lines. If a resident owns their home, it’s up to them to pay for changes to the plumbing.

It’s their ownership of that line,” Anderson said. “In the city, we’re working to try to figure out ways to assist with that where we can, solidifying some grant funding.

Anderson said he and his crew are also able and willing to test residents’ water.

“We do highly emphasize you have to call us,” he said. “I personally went out on a couple different calls in the last couple of weeks. We can’t solve something if we don’t know what the issue is. We’ve gone into homes, we’ve seen line filters that maybe need to be changed, we’ve seen dissimilar metals, galvanized pipe, copper.”

On Oct. 5, Gregory said council will discuss not only paying for the plan through fees but how to begin systematic repairs or replacements if needed.

“The idea is if a stretch of water main is replaced, it doesn’t only enhance that stretch, it enhances a larger portion of the system.”

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.