Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday March 2nd, 2012, 10:38am

Quinn's Budgetary Push For Clean Drinking Water In Illinois

Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed setting aside $1 billion in state money to revamp Illinois’ crumbling drinking and waste water infrastructure as part of the 2013 budget proposal he unveiled last week. The governor is proposing the Clean Water Now! initiative at a time when he plans to shut down two prisons and dozens of other state facilities while also slashing Medicaid and state agency funding.

But environmentalists say the program—which aims to put more than 10,000 people to work—is a public-health responsibility and obligation.

“Obviously, Illinois is facing severe budget pressure, and that limits new initiatives that the governor and legislature can undertake,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Midwest-based Environmental Law and Policy Center.

“On the other hand, we can’t continue to stand still. Ensuring safe drinking water to Illinois residents is absolutely vital.”

Overall, Illinois has a $15 billion backlog of drinking water system repairs - the fourth largest backlog in the nation, the budget states.

About 5,500 construction jobs are estimated to be created to repair the drinking water system.

And more than 4,400 jobs will be created to mend the state’s $17 billion in wastewater repairs.

Learner said large parts of central and southern Illinois rely on private, underground wells and local rivers for drinking water, which increases the risk of contamination.

Just last month, the city clerk of Maeystown in southern Illinois urged residents not to give tap water to infants after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency warned of high levels of nitrates, which can make babies seriously ill.

And in 2009, the carcinogen, vinyl chloride, was found in private water wells in Sauk Village.

That same year, harmful chemicals in the public water supply were found in Rockford, Hennepin, Fox River Grove, Crystal Lake, and Six Oaks Mobile Home Park located south of Pecatonica, according to the Illinois EPA. Last week, Progress Illinois detailed how federal budget cuts could compromise the safety of local drinking water even further.

There are several funding programs the EPA now runs that towns are trying to tap in to treat their troubled water systems, said Maggie Carson, spokesperson for the Illinois EPA.

Quinn plans to disperse some of the Clean Water Now! money to the existing programs, Carson said.

Pekin, Elmhurst, Marengo and Chicago, are a few of about 200 cities that applied for funding to rehab or expand their sewer systems and water treatment facilities as part of the Illinois EPA’s Water Pollution Control Loan Program for 2012.

And more than 170 Illinois municipalities applied for funding from the EPA’s Public Water Supply Loan Program.

“The need is much greater than the dollars allowed,” Carson said.

Quinn hasn’t yet explained how the money will be divided up among towns that need funding.

Clean water is a pressing issue, Carson said, because many cities in the state constructed their drinking water and wastewater systems decades ago.

Chicago’s water infrastructure was built in the 19th century, for example.

But then, “society grew and needs changed,” she said. “It’s all declining and degrading on a similar schedule.”

Environmental advocate Learner said this is an opportunity to solve a problem of the past and move forward.

It’s good for the environment and will help to improve the economy, he said.

But one public policy expert says he’s not sure where Quinn will find the money to fund the program.

Charles Wheeler, director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the Quinn administration indicated that launching the initiative depends on a reliable revenue stream.

“Where that’s going to come from has not been determined yet,” Wheeler said.

The Illinois legislature will have to sign off on the proposed budget before the program can move forward.

*Ashlee Rezin contributed to this report.

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