Joliet Residents Protest Plan To Hike Water Rates

Mayor Bob O’Dekirk’s proposal to build a billion-dollar pipeline to access Lake Michigan water from Chicago rankles some Joliet activists who say the costs should fall harder on major companies that use the most water.

Joliet resident Nick Domberg, left, joins Roberto Clack and Yana Kalmyka, far right, both of Warehouse Workers for Justice, as Cesar Guerrero of the Joliet City Council speaks to protesters in front of Joliet's city hall. (John Lippert/BGA)

A small but vocal group of protesters gathered on the steps of Joliet city hall on Monday night to rail against Mayor Robert O’Dekirk’s controversial plan to solve a looming water crisis by tripling rates on homes throughout the area.

Chanting slogans such as “Water is a human right, not just for the rich and white!” the group also brandished picket signs and suggested any new rate increases should fall more heavily on the biggest guzzlers — large companies, including warehouse operators such as Amazon.

“We’re not even what you’d consider moderate-income families any more,” said protester Danganetta Harris, a resident of nearby Fairmont, which buys water from Joliet. “If my bill triples, how will I be able to take care of my sons and my other bills?”

Asked to comment before the 45-minute rally of about 20 protesters, O’Dekirk released an emailed statement saying he’s open to revising Joliet’s water rates. But, he said, it’s “difficult to imagine” how higher rates for Amazon and other big companies could materially lower rates for 50,000 Joliet households.

The controversy enveloping Joliet centers on a looming crisis throughout northeastern Illinois as the loss of groundwater through overuse has political leaders, industrialists and their customers scrambling for alternate sources of water, according to a Better Government Association report in September.

The rally was organized in response to O’Dekirk’s grandiose plan of up to $1.4 billion to switch the region’s water source from the drying underground aquifers to Lake Michigan by building a massive 31-mile pipeline to the city of Chicago.

The protesters, which included Joliet City Councilman Cesar Guerrero, called for a “graduated water tax” that will shift a bigger share of the financial burden onto the companies that use the most water.

“Amazon and others like them can absolutely afford to pay just a little bit more so that our working-class families won’t have to make those decisions between paying their light bills, their gas bills, and their water bills,” Guerrero said. “Our people are struggling enough as it is.”

Officials from Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment.

City officials have said rates will need to triple in order to pay the debt on the construction and land acquisition for the pipeline, set to be completed by 2030. However, some officials worry cost overruns could force much bigger increases.

Joliet residents now pay an average of $34 per month for water, records show.

Amazon has become a flashpoint in the controversy because of its rapid expansion of warehouses, the growing traffic congestion across the region, and the millions in public incentives and tax abatements the company has received to bring 3,500 jobs to Joliet.

On Thursday, the Joliet Plan Commission is scheduled to consider a revised zoning agreement with Compass Business Park, which would bring dozens of additional warehouses to what is now mostly farmland south and east of the city.

That project alone was set to use 450,000 gallons of water per day before it was expanded by almost a third last month. In total, Joliet uses about 15 million gallons a day.

Roberto Clack, executive director of Warehouse Workers for Justice and an organizer of Monday’s rally, said that since Amazon uses 100 times more water than an average household, asking the company to pay more would help lower costs for individual rate payers across the city.

Joliet currently discounts water rates for some residents. For example, senior citizens who own their homes pay an access fee of $6.18 per month. They also pay $2.26 for their first 200 cubic feet of water. After that, they pay $3.37 for every 100 cubic feet they use.

However, renters and industrial users don’t get the same discounts. They each pay the same $6.18 per month access fee. But renters and industrial users pay $3.62 for their first 200 cubic feet of water. After that, they pay $5.47 for every 100 cubic feet, no matter how much.

At Monday’s rally, organizers urged Joliet to study the County of Baltimore, which charges $68.06 per 1,000 cubic feet of water for residential customers and $71.71 for industrial users.

In a presentation last month, Joliet’s consultants promised to soften the impact of higher rates with conservation measures that include encouraging residents to take shorter showers. They also pledged to tap federal rate subsidies for low-income households.

O’Dekirk has said he hopes surrounding towns will sign up to share the costs and benefits of his pipeline.

His plan faces a big test next month when the village of Oswego begins voting on its new water source. O’Dekirk’s vision is among three options the nearby town is considering. Oswego has joined with nearby Yorkville and Montgomery to choose among three options: signing up with Joliet, buying water from the DuPage Water Commission or building an intake that would access water from the Fox River.

Capital costs for the three towns would be cheaper with the DuPage option than with Joliet, according to a staff report attached to the agenda for an Oswego trustee meeting scheduled for tonight.