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Why doesn't my house have a water meter?
March 12, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Why doesn't my house have a water meter?

— K., Logan Square

Cecil Adams replies:

You'll excuse my naivete, K., but when your letter arrived I thought: She doesn't have a water meter and she's announcing this to the newspapers? This is like complaining to the IRS you're not paying enough taxes. Somehow I thought no water meter meant no water bill. Silly me. Further inquiry established that you pay a flat rate for water twice a year based on an arcane formula involving square footage, number of flower pots, and your opinion of the alderman. At that point I dimly recalled having heard once that some fraction of Chicago homes had never had meters installed. But — I'm telling you, it took me a while to get my head around this — I figured you encountered this mainly in neglected neighborhoods where they still had cobblestones and gaslight and  guys delivering ice.  Wrong again. I learned that (a) yours is a regular old house on a regular old street, and  — this is part that got me — (b) some 350,000 of the city's 510,000 water customers don't have meters either. In other words, people like me, born-and-bred Chicagoans who have spent their entire lives in houses with water meters and figured this was your standard, everything's-up-to-date-in-Kansas-City kind of deal, are, on the contrary, the exception, not the rule. But you might want to think about joining our ranks, K. It could actually mean paying less.

First the facts. Having called around, I wound up talking to a guy named Josh Ellis, a program associate with the Metropolitan Planning Council. MPC is a civic group that, in addition to pondering the cosmic topics its name implies, keeps an eye on the water meter situation. I suppose I could have gone over to City Hall and had it out with them. However, not that I don't love everyone over there, I figured Josh would save me the trouble of boiling Hallspeak down to something an ordinary human being could understand.

He did. Here's what I learned:

  • Chicago is one of the few if not only large cities in the country where most houses don't have water meters. Nobody's quite sure why this is. However —  you'll see the significance of this in a moment — one may suppose somebody in a smoke-filled room long ago said: "Guys, we're sitting next to 21 percent of the world's surface fresh water supply. It's not like the stuff is going to run out."

  • In progressive water management circles, not having meters is considered pretty retrograde, for the obvious reason that, if water costs the same no matter what you use, why should you care how much you waste? Toilet won't stop running? Big deal! Sprinkler running 24/7 in July? No problemo! Water park for the kids in the back yard? Well, it means we'll have to invite the Vrdolyaks over. But strictly from the standpoint of out-of-pocket costs, why not?

  • All new construction and major rehabs in the city must have meters, which is why go-getters such as the Adams clan have always had meters. It's the rest of you slackers that let things slide. But not for long — long by geological standards, anyway. The city recently announced a program to install 20,000 water meters per year, meaning that, assuming no delays due to economic collapse, Olympics shortfalls, etc., the town will be fully metered in 17½ years.

How nice, you think. But what's in it for me? We'll get to that. First, seeing as I'd already gone metric myself, I had another question, borne of the same thought that probably explains why we're so unmetered now: Why are we worrying about this? We get our water from the Great Blessit Lakes!

I could tell Josh didn't feel this reflected advanced thinking. However, he patiently explained that, by law, Chicago can pump only 3,200 cubic feet of water per second out of the lake. As you'll remember from my explanation of river reversal, Chicago sewers drain into (ultimately) the Mississippi River. This has never sat well with our neighbors. Missourians, understandably, didn't like the idea of Chicago's ickies floating past their front doors. (Sewage treatment has pretty much made that problem go away.) Great Lakes states had an even graver concern: Those crazy Chicagoans! They're going to pump the lake dry! Much harrumphing, banging on tables, lawsuits. Result: 3,200 cu. ft./sec. limit.

I get the limit thing, I told Josh. But Chicago had 3.6 million people at one time. Now we've got 2.8. OK, maybe we take more showers today than they did in 1950. But are you telling me our water quota is almost all used up?

The city is filling up again, said Josh. Or at least it will over the long term.

Fine, I said, maybe in 50 years we're back to 3.6 million. We're nowhere near that now. What — I use the following expression loosely — is the big rush?

Josh sighed. Because we sell lake water to the suburbs, he said, and the more water we squander, the less we have to sell, and the less money we make.

There's a line of reasoning I can grasp, I said. But — nobody is going to accuse me of not thoroughly exploring this topic — what if there were no legal limit? Would there be any point in conserving then? I mean, whatever those dweebs in Wisconsin, Michigan, etc., think, we're not really draining the lake, are we?

Josh said nobody knew. The lake level goes up and down for obscure reasons over a roughly 30 year cycle. It was low in the 1930 and 1960s, started getting low again in the late 1990s, and is low now. 

Just my point, I said. It's that activist judiciary! There's no point to this! We live next to 21 percent of the world's surface fresh water supply, blah blah blah.

I could tell by this time Josh was thinking I was Sarah Palin without the legs. A long discussion ensued in which we established that (a) water is to Illinois what oil is to Saudi Arabia, tulips are to Holland, and bimbos are to California, namely, an easily exploited and seemingly inexhaustible resource that nonetheless might run out if not efficiently managed; (b) in much if not most of the state, drinking water comes from wells drilled into aquifers that are being drained faster than they can recharge and are basically being mined; and thus (c) if you're looking at water resources that (one hopes) won't run out some day, the lake is pretty much it.  In recognition whereof, the city is foresightedly pursuing the following three-part program:

  • Replacing leaky water mains, hopefully before they break and the rest of Montrose Avenue caves in;

  • Stormwater management, i.e., figuring out how to get rainwater to drain into the lake or at least stay in the ground, as opposed to going into the sewers and out to the Mississippi (storm runoff gets figured into the 3,200 cu. ft./sec.); and

  • Water meters.

Which brings us back to you, K. The city really wants you to put in a water meter — so bad that they offer the following assurances:

  • Based on the experience of other cities, your water bill will go down 17 to 33 percent;

  • OK, maybe if you've got 12 people in the house it won't, but

  • No matter how much water you use, the city guarantees your water bill won't go up for seven years.

Plus, you won't even have a meter reader knocking on your door, because an electronic gimmick on the meter automatically broadcasts the reading to a water department guy driving down the street.

So think about it, K. This is your chance to save money, be virtuous, and help the city of Chicago get caught up to, oh, maybe 1938.

— Cecil Adams

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