Editor’s note: This is Part 5 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.
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SYCAMORE – Isaac Wilson graduated from Sycamore High School in the 1990s and moved back a few years ago with his sister to serve as his parents’ caretaker. Recently, the water in their home started to smell bad, he said.
Wilson’s parents have lived in Sycamore for more than 50 years. Within the past few years, however, Wilson and his sister started to notice an unusual smell coming from the water at their house in the 200 block of E. Lincoln St. in Sycamore.
“We were just kind of like, ‘What the hell?’ ” Wilson said. “When you ran the water, it smelled like sewage.”
Wilson said he initially thought perhaps the problem stemmed from a bad water line in his parents’ house. They noticed that their neighbors and people who lived in other parts of Sycamore complained about the same problem.
Anderson’s comments were similar to complaints made by many residents throughout the Daily Chronicle’s reporting on water quality in Sycamore. Residents have described water that is murky brown or yellow or water that is foul-smelling. Questions also persist among Sycamore residents spurred by several homes in the city’s south side neighborhoods testing positive for elevated lead levels. As a result of those levels, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has started to require water testing in the city every six months.
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 health.
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.
Wilson said the water in his home smelled so bad that his family started purchasing water to use instead.
“We literally started buying bottled water and we got one of those little mini water towers ... for drinking,” Wilson said. “We still bathe with it, unfortunately.”
It’s unclear whether the replacement program will help improve the water quality in homes that are experiencing discoloration, odor or elevated lead levels. According to the EPA, secondary contaminants such as iron, which aren’t federally regulated, could cause discoloration or smell. According to the city of Sycamore’s website, lead is not found in the city’s source groundwater.
Although the city has denied its tap water is unsafe – including in response to an ongoing class action lawsuit filed by several Sycamore residents in October 2020 – its public works department has begun its plan to replace lead-lined water service lines in the area.
The majority of those water service lines have been identified in single-family homes. 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. Public Works Director Matt Anderson previously said replacements often range from $7,000 to $13,000.
The city sent notifications to 120 homes in January to invite them to participate in an EPA-funded replacement program, utilizing a $1.7 million EPA loan Sycamore was awarded in December. The program is expected to be continued in groups. City officials have asked anyone who’s unsure what type of service line their home has for water to contact the public works department.
For some residents, interactions with the city about water comes with a dose of doubt.
Wilson called his water bills “ridiculous” and said his family has to run the water before using it so it doesn’t smell as bad or until it runs clear. He said the water smelled like sulfur or rotten eggs and had a “chlorine and garbage smell.”
Jennifer Campbell who, along with Sycamore resident Jeremy Pennington, filed a class action lawsuit against Sycamore in October 2020 after months of public outcry over concerns about water quality, said she shares that frustration.
Campbell was one of multiple residents who publicly approached city officials about water quality issues within the past year. She said she expected city officials to be receptive to residents’ concerns.
“At the very least, we expected the city to acknowledge the widespread water quality problems and to recognize the safety concerns when multiple end users found elevated levels of lead in their water,” Campbell wrote in a statement to the Daily Chronicle. “We expected the city to work collaboratively with residents toward resolving these problems instead of downplaying and ignoring honest concerns.”
Campbell said the city has failed to accept the reality of what the Sycamore water looks and smells like.
“The city has failed to accept the reality that it is responsible for fixing these problems,” Campbell wrote in her statement. “These actions forced the residents to take the only avenue we could to create change.”
“What we do expect to see is meaningful change and progress,” Campbell said.
Wilson said he started taking several videos of water hydrant flushing and posted them on social media. He said he understands hydrant flushing is a necessary process, but questioned the regularity that Sycamore flushes.
He said he remains skeptical that the city’s Water Master Plan, approved in 2019, will fix the issues.
City officials have said the plan will address aging infrastructure, namely old water service lines which are made with lead, and aging water mains. To counteract issues such as discoloration or smell, the EPA recommends water infrastructure improvements such as addressing corroded pipes in water service lines, and aerating and filtering water on its way to the user. Other, more expensive measures can be taken, too, such as installing reverse osmosis systems, according to the EPA.
Wilson said his parents used to have well water, which gave them less issues than what they have been facing with the city’s water.
“And that’s the question,” Wilson said. “Why are people with well water better off than people who don’t have it?
Creating trust in the community
Tomoyuki Shibata, a public health professor at Northern Illinois University, co-teaches a university-level water quality class with environmental sciences professor Melissa Lenczewski. Both said it appears the city is in compliance with federal and state regulations, but they agree city officials could be clearer with residents about their concerns. They suggested a town hall forum.
“Because only knowing limited information, we have a limited answer we can get,” Shibata said.
Wilson said it shouldn’t take a lawsuit for Sycamore city officials to address residents’ water concerns.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic – we need fresh water,” Wilson said. “I mean, we’re not getting water vouchers for bottled water or a water jugs that we have to buy at the store. Come on.”
Campbell who helped form the online group called Citizens for Clean Water Sycamore, said she had no idea the group would grow as it has, from eight people to more than 1,170 members online.
“It is truly amazing how residents have come together in this community to raise awareness of the water crisis,” Campbell said. “Through this journey, we are learning the importance of advocating for not only ourselves and people close to us, but advocating for those we do not know personally, yet care about as if we do. When the health and well-being of all members of our community is our focus, everyone benefits.”