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Local

'This is torture': Sycamore city council deliberates water plan fees as lead concerns continue

SYCAMORE – Sycamore 2nd Ward Alderman Chuck Stowe said he hopes the city will get to the bottom of what's been causing residents to complain for months about the foul odor and texture of the water in their homes before spending millions of dollars to not solve the problem.

Stowe said that while he supports improving the city's water infrastructure, he worries it may not be enough.

"My biggest fear ... is I want to be sure that we identify what's causing these odor issues," Stowe said. "Some people have problems with discoloration of water. I've been on the council long enough to know that in the past, we've had some problems with that. It had to do with flow. That's when we ended up using the phosphate. The color can probably be solved, I'm just worried about people running into the smell."

Stowe spoke during Monday's City Council meeting, during which nearly a dozen residents joined dozens of others in their months-long calls for improving water quality in their homes. Some who live in Sycamore's older neighborhoods – many with water mains over 100 years old – say they can't use their water because of the foul smell and gummy texture, which ruins appliances and prohibits them from even drinking it. It's a complaint that's been echoed at meetings throughout the summer, with some saying the water has a sulfuric smell, and others saying it smells like plain old sewage.

Megan Smith, of the 600 block of South Cross Street, said she first approached the city in 2016 about water issues and was "made to feel like I was crazy."

She said the foul-smelling water also has a "mucus, slimy buildup" that clogged the tubing in her home, which requires cleaning once a month or else her furnace or AC will stop working.

"This has been four long years of torture," Smith said. "And I'm tired of being told I'm crazy, and now we have an army of people coming at this."

"When I lived on Crescent Drive before I moved out on Sterling where we have a well, the water was absolutely repulsive," said Amber Quitno, Sycamore resident who's running for DeKalb County Board. "It doesn’t smell like sulfur very often. It smells like actual feces, it smells like sewage. It's awful."

In their ongoing pitch to the city, residents have said they've tried to mitigate problems on their own at the direction of public works officials – buying new appliances, buying special filters, replacing their plumbing or water heaters. Many say they’ve complained to the city for years with no result. Some residents say they’ve spent thousands of dollars to redo plumbing and to buy new water heaters or softeners, all to no avail.

Jennifer Campbell, of the 400 block of Edwards Street, who's been a frequent face appealing to the City Council, said Monday that she's now part of a Sycamore group advocating for clean water which has retained legal counsel.

Funded through fees

The council on Monday began deliberations on the 2019 Water Master Plan, approved in 2019 but put on hold in part because of financial constraints from the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan would have dedicated $11.2 million to overhauling the city’s water system, paid in part by a special fee that would have been placed on residents’ water bills.

That fee was the topic of discussion Monday, with three options laid before the council, City Manager Brian Gregory said.

The city would impose a monthly fee on residents' water bills for the next 20 years, based on a water meter, he said. So the more water residents use, the higher they pay. Gregory recommends the city use a low-interest loans through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Whatever revenue is generated from the monthly fee would go toward the loan.

"However, with that you have to understand that whatever the generation is, you're pledging those dollars each year for the next 20 years," Gregory said. "So as a level of fee is decided, those are the dollars that would go into the project."

The council will in the future vote on three fee options: a $3.50 fee that would generate about half of the $11.2 million needed over the course of two decades, a $5 fee that would fund about 73% of costs, or $6.90 that would fully fund seven infrastructure projects to replace PVC or cast-iron water mains throughout the city.

Filtering out the problem

Throughout the months-long water debate, residents have frequently come forward to express fears of unsafe lead levels in water, citing water testing kits they've had done independently which apparently show lead levels exceeding the safety threshold.

City officials, however, maintain Sycamore’s water quality as a whole meets safety standards set by the state, and while lead has no smell, notwithstanding the odors and other issues that come alongside reported by residents, public works crews have not yet identified what could be causing the problem in the city’s older streets.

The city's challenge now, said Assistant Public Works Director Matt Anderson, is identifying the problem. He encourages residents with concerns to contact him directly so he can better map the areas experiencing issues.

"Part of the projects identified by the master plan were with respect to what we call water age," Anderson said. "How long that water sits in the pipes. These projects were identified as maybe better able to facilitate flow. We have found valves that were off which are obviously going to possibly create dead end areas."

Quitno said she had water test results which showed lead levels exceeded the safety threshold.

"Is the water safe to drink given this new information?" she asked Anderson directly, who was silenced by Keith Foster, Sycamore's city attorney.

"I don't think it's appropriate to be putting Matt on the spot," Foster said. "Matt, I'm directing you not to answer that. I appreciate everyone's interest but this should not be the Q&A session that it's turned into. It's a meeting of the council."

Campbell then stepped in and said she received a letter from Anderson this summer saying the water was safe, and thanked him for it, but expressed new doubt.

"That was before the results were collected so at this point I wouldn't go by that statement he mailed this summer."

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