Editor’s note: This is Part 4 of a series by the Daily Chronicle looking into the water system in the city of Sycamore. This project was made possible, in part, through a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. This series is being made available to our readers for free online. Please consider subscribing to help us continue the work we do on behalf of our communities. Catch up on Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 here.
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SYCAMORE – Sycamore residents recently may have received a letter from the city identifying their home as one serviced by lead-lined water lines and inviting them to opt into a city program to have those lines replaced at no charge.
Yes, that letter is real and it’s part of Sycamore’s ongoing plans to address aging water infrastructure that include replacing lead water services using a different metal, Public Works Director Matt Anderson said.
So far, Sycamore has identified about 120 lead service lines in residential neighborhoods that will be replaced through a $1.6 million loan the city received in December from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Sycamore was one of 22 communities in the state to receive such funding, and officials hope to continue identifying lead lines and eventually seek additional state funding through the IEPA to replace them later, Anderson said.
Sycamore resident Shannon Thomsen said she received such a letter at her home in the 1000 block of Wild Street at the end of January. Thomsen said she recently learned her family’s home – the first home it has owned – has water pipes lined with lead, not copper.
Ongoing concerns by several in Sycamore about whether or not their tap water is safe to drink, and the history of several homes testing for elevated lead levels, have her concerned, Thomsen said.
“So that actually freaks me out more,” Thomsen said. “We don’t drink the water in our home. We pay to have water delivered, which gets expensive. We also were concerned about bathing our baby as well as older children in it for the longest time. It’s very hard to tell a 1-year-old not to drink the bath water.”
Over the past year and a half, at least 60 Sycamore homes have been tested for lead in the water, with at least six reporting levels ranging from 18 parts per billion to 304. The amount deemed legal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 15. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, any amount of lead exposure can be damaging to a person’s brain.
The ongoing lead concerns, coupled with several residents experiencing discolored, foul-smelling water, has many Sycamore homeowners on edge. And some say the city isn’t doing enough to remedy the water problems.
Although the city has denied its tap water is unsafe – including an ongoing class action lawsuit filed by several Sycamore residents in October 2020 – its public works department has begun its plan to replace 120 lead-lined water service lines in the area.
The majority of those water service lines have been identified in single-family homes, Anderson said.
Although Thomsen doesn’t know the lead levels contained in the water flowing from her home’s taps, the possibilities have taken a toll on her family’s ability to enjoy life, she said. Thomsen said she buys gallons of water for cooking and for her pets to drink, which can get expensive.
“This past summer when we filled up the pool in the backyard we were worried about the kids getting the water in their mouth or their face,” Thomsen said. “We hold our breath each month to see what the water bill is going to be.”
Given the uncertainty around Sycamore’s water quality, Thomsen said she and her husband haven’t yet decided whether to opt in to the city’s offer.
“And will replacing our lead pipes solve the lead water issue?” Thomsen said.
What to do if you get a letter
It’s likely that more lead service lines exist beyond the 120 already identified, Anderson said. Plans to replace them are ongoing.
If a resident has received a letter, they have 30 days to opt in to reply.
“By saying yes, perfect, we’ve got your info, now we’ll mail you three forms,” Anderson said.
The forms include a license agreement for the contractor and a permit with the city.
Replacement of service lines on residential property is usually up to the property owner to pay for, while the city maintains public lines up to private property, according to Sycamore’s website. City officials said the IEPA-funded program lifts that financial burden off the property owner, however.
Anderson said the service line runs the connection on the city water main to the home’s water meter.
Mailers were sent out to 115 private property owners Jan. 28, Anderson said. As of Feb. 2, about 39 residents had responded, saying they’d like to participate.
A contractor will come out and survey people’s property to make plans for the water line replacement, Anderson said. Timelines aren’t yet clear, depending on each case.
Once a resident opts into the program, the city will handle scheduling inspections for each property with a consulting engineer. The contractor working with the city is N-Trak Group LLC of Loves Park.
Construction could include excavation, boring into private land, making determinations on where to dig. All of these details will be planned out through the inspection, Anderson said.
It’s unclear whether the replacement program will help improve the water quality in homes that are experiencing discoloration, odor or elevated lead levels.
Anderson, however, said Sycamore’s water quality follows all state and federal standards for safe consumption. He also referred to the city’s 2019 Water Master Plan, which outlined a goal to replace aging water infrastructure before public outcry bubbled over in 2020.
As part of the creation of the water master plan, the city’s public works department in 2018 began the process of identifying which service lines in Sycamore were lined with lead. Most at the time were identified as unknown, Anderson said.
Of the 6,800 service lines in the city, the makeup of about 1,400 is still unknown, Anderson said.
“There’s probably a high likelihood that some of those unknowns may be lead,” Anderson said.
The city has created a map that has allowed it to record locations for water service lines in need of replacement. The water master plan also includes a goal to replace aging water mains, some nearly a century old.
Anderson said he anticipates another round of service line identification this month or in March. The plan is to identify locations in need of replacement that are in proximity to each other, to better maximize cost output when contractors come to town.
Replacement of water service lines can be costly, depending on outlying factors such as the home’s proximity to a public highway or a larger road. Anderson said replacements often range from $7,000 to $13,000. If 120 properties replace their water service lines through the IEPA loan program, it averages around $12,000 per property.
Treating Sycamore’s water
Although getting clean tap water in a home could be as simple as flipping on a faucet, Anderson said there’s a lot that goes into treating city water, from aquifer up to private service lines.
Sycamore’s water draws from five wells that tap into nearby groundwater aquifers and are drilled 1,200 feet into the ground, Anderson said. From there, the well water is treated and filtered, and runs through water mains to service line taps, or into the city’s water towers to draw from later.
Anderson said Sycamore’s labyrinth of water main pipes direct the water to service lines, which then bring the water to residences. Sycamore maintains about 115 miles of water main serving 7,000 users, according to the city’s Water Master Plan.
Sycamore’s well water is commonly treated for radium and fluoride – although that’s not always the case for surrounding communities. For example, Anderson said, DeKalb often has to treat its water for iron but it doesn’t have to treat it for radium as much because it has a number of shallow wells.
Although some northern Illinois communities like Kendall County are grappling with the inevitability of their aquifers drying up and are considering other water sources like the Fox River or even Lake Michigan, aquifers near DeKalb County are in no immediate danger of drying up, Anderson said.
Sycamore’s water mains are made of iron, which also can be found in the region’s groundwater. Over time, Anderson said, the iron can precipitate out and end up in the bottom of water mains.
According to the EPA, iron exceeding 0.3 milligrams per liter can cause water to have a rusty color, taste metallic or have sediment in it.
According to the city of Sycamore’s website, lead is not found in the city’s source groundwater. The city uses a corrosion control treatment with a phosphate blend to treat groundwater. The EPA’s lead and copper rule requires water treatment utilities to make drinking water less corrosive to the materials it comes into contact with on its way to taps.
The main obstacle municipalities may face when considering upgrades, repairs or source to their water systems is financial cost.
Most of Sycamore’s private water service lines are made of lead, brass, copper or plastic. Sycamore has more than 270 lead service lines within the city’s limits, along with 5,280 copper lines, 96 plastic lines and 1,650 lines, Anderson said.
Whether it’s five minutes or three hours, hydrant flushing is a common practice in Sycamore, and it can be a more affordable way to flush out contaminants such as iron.
Hydrant flushing can cause residents’ water to be discolored for a period of time, and people should run their water until it runs clear when that happens, according to Sycamore’s website.
In 2012, Brianna Weichel and her family moved into about a 5-year-old house in Sycamore’s North Grove Crossing subdivision. She said the tap water in her home consistently is discolored, and she recently noticed it had a pungent odor, especially when she filled up the bathtub.
Weichel said she called the city’s water department and was told the problem could be her water heater, even though “the cold water smelled like sulfur.”
Weichel said the city eventually flushed water on her street. After that, their water hasn’t smelled that badly again, she said.
Weichel said the previous homeowners installed a reverse osmosis system installed on many of their sinks. She said her family changed the filters and updated the system when they moved in, which cost about $2,000. The system, however, would have cost about $10,000 if they had to put it in themselves. She said she’s purchased water filters for her shower heads, too, at about $50 a pop.
Weichel described what it’s like changing the water filters on her home: “It is pretty gross.”