Four-day water outage has Berwyn aldermen, residents asking what happened

Hundreds of Berwyn residents who live in the 1900 and 2100 blocks of Ridgeland Avenue were without water or experienced little to no water pressure for up to four days in late June.

The incident occurred June 27-30 and led Berwyn Public Works Director Robert Schiller to set up portable toilets, open four hydrants and look for fixes.

Meanwhile, a crew of volunteers led by Alderman Robert Pabon (5th Ward) and Alderwoman Alicia Ruiz (6th) mobilized to provide residents with hundreds of cases of water, sanitary wipes and buckets.

The Pav YMCA opened its locker rooms for impacted residents, Depot District mainstay Lunges and Lattes provided meals, and the World’s Largest Laundromat allowed affected residents to wash their clothes for free.

The cause of the outage was a combination of valves malfunctioning and/or breaking and leaking pipes, according to emails between Schiller, Pabon, Ruiz and Mayor Robert Lovero.

Since 2016, Schiller has said multiple times in City Council meetings that more than 90% of Berwyn’s underground pipe infrastructure dealing with stormwater and sewer drainage is more than 90 years old.

“Thirty-seven years in the business and this is the first one that has me scratching my head,” Schiller wrote June 29, the third day of the outage that left more than 20 multi-family residences and about two dozen single-family houses with little or no water.

Schiller on June 29 said portable toilets were being dropped off to affected blocks and a hydrant spigot would be opened to allow people to fill buckets to flush toilets and cook.

As to the problem’s source, Schiller wrote in the same memo: “I have had two leak-detection companies, myself, water department staff and a contractor out there. We have been putting our collective heads together and to date, we have found closed valves [more than likely from work done without a permit or some other unauthorized work].

“It also appears that the valve at 22nd [Street] is broken in the close to closed position. Additionally, we believe there is a break somewhere that is causing a further reduction in pressure. The hydrants are getting some water but there is not enough volume to provide pressure to push through the service lines,” Schiller wrote.

Pabon on June 29 asked Schiller if the city could reach out to affected residents as a show of support, especially those not on social media.

Lovero responded with an email stating: “Not all residents are on the EMS system. The quickest and best way would be if you can distribute a flyer in your area. I know Alderman Ruiz is notifying her side of the street.”

Pabon replied that he had notified everyone impacted earlier, but that he believed his Fifth Ward residents would appreciate hearing from public works or the mayor directly “now that we’re approaching Day 4.”

Fifth ward resident Oscar Garza was among those still without water June 30.

“There was no notice from the city,” Garza said. “It was a hard time for us because there was no notice from the city. We hoped the problem would go away. But we had to stop doing laundry. Cooking was very little. When we called public works or the water department, they’d just tell us ‘we’re working on it.’ ”

There was a silver lining, Garza said.

“This was an opportunity for us to meet our neighbors and get to know them better,” he said. “We shared our experiences together. I found that good things came through the bad.”

About 11 p.m. June 29, Pabon reached out to Schiller and Lovero again, asking for another update and asking if the city could deploy a water truck if the crisis entered its fourth day. By 8:30 p.m. June 30, all residents had water again, according to a July 8 memo from Ruiz.

“Public works did a good job of sticking to it and trying to problem-solve, but when you get to four days without water, that’s a crisis,” Pabon said July 11. “And we need an emergency strategy for dealing with crises like this. There should be more communication directly with the residents about finding relief and solutions and what’s going on.

“And that brings me to not if but when this happens again. We had hundreds of residents, dozens and dozens of families who couldn’t wash their clothes or cook or use their bathrooms who didn’t hear a word from their mayor. We must do better for them,” Pabon said.

Ruiz addressed the problem and possible legal liabilities in a July 8 memo to Lovero and the City Council.

“I believe that our city must have policies and protocols in place to reduce our legal risk and to act in good faith,” she said.

“This is another example of the need for improvement,” Ruiz continued in her memo. “Therefore, I request that the public works, parking, trees, traffic, streets and sewers committee review the chain of events and devise a state of emergency plan for future occurrences that hinder the quality of life of our residents.”

On July 11, residents of the 1800 and 1900 blocks of Grove Street reported low/no water pressure according to the city’s Facebook page. That problem was “RESOLVED,” the city posted that evening. No additional information was provided.