In recent years, the City of Chicago has recognized the positive contributions of urban agriculture, including job creation, healthy food access, green space beautification, and environmental benefits. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, food supply chains have been heavily disrupted, highlighting the growing importance of urban farms and gardens as essential operations that combat health inequity, strengthen our local food system, and foster more resilient communities. To keep urban agriculture and the local food system thriving in Chicago, access to affordable water is critical.
Despite these realities, Chicago’s growers continue to face a series of financial and legal barriers preventing them from accessing the water needed to grow food for their families and their communities. Most growing operations do not have the land security or capital to install a permanent water line, which can cost as much as $40,000. Due to the cost prohibitive nature of this option, the majority of farms and gardens access water through a City of Chicago hydrant. In February, the Department of Water Management (DWM) released an updated hydrant permit policy, which made it harder than ever for growers to access water and produce fresh, healthy food for their communities.
The impact of the updated policy has been stark in Black and Brown communities, who are already experiencing higher rates of hunger and consequential health disparities. This type of health inequity caused by food insecurity exacerbates underlying chronic conditions and leads to higher rates of COVID-19. Black and Brown people are now forced to bear the weight of this expensive and cumbersome water policy.
In response to these issues, AUA has worked in coalition with farmers, gardeners, and food system partners to advocate for a set of immediate and long term solutions aimed at reducing the cost of and increasing access to water for Chicago’s growers. After months of communication with the Mayor’s Office, Department of Water Management, Department of Planning and Development, and the Department of Legal Services, the City of Chicago implemented a new hydrant permit policy. Check out AUA’s Grower’s Guide for more information on navigating the new policy.
The updated water policy:
- Establishes a new rate of $117.81/year that is applicable to both farms and gardens. That rate is applicable to operations under 3,000 square feet. It is an added $50.68 for each additional 3,000 square feet
- Prohibits the use of vacuum breakers and requires the use of a Reduced Pressure Zone (RPZ) unit as a water backflow prevention device. This device must be re-certified annually.
- Removes the requirement that a farm or garden must be a nonprofit organization.
- Aligns the City’s zoning and water policies — community gardens can be as large as 25,000 square feet and can make ‘incidental sales.’
The updated water policy does not:
- Recognize that the new application process puts additional administrative and financial burdens on farms/gardens who are trying to get immediate access to water in 2020.
- Provide any support for the costs associated with RPZ acquisition, installation, and certification, or the acquisition of hydrant fittings and keys. The average cost of this is around $1800.
- Acknowledge that many gardens and farms normally use a 2″ RPZ valve to ensure adequate water pressure. The new policy only allows for the use of a ¾” RPZ valve.
We propose the following solutions to ensure that growers have immediate access to water in 2020 and beyond:
- Establish a clearer and more streamlined application process and immediately approve existing permit applications that meet City requirements.
- Allow growers to apply for a hydrant permit for the 2020 growing season without the newly required legal agreement between the landowner, farm/garden and City of Chicago. This agreement puts an unnecessary administrative and financial burden on growers.
- Allow for the use of larger RPZ units to ensure adequate water pressure.
- Apply rules equitably to all organizations regardless of garden size, organizational status, and land ownership.
- Determine the annual water rate based on square footage of the farm/garden, not the total square footage of the plot of land.
- As done in recent years, enable the Department of Water Management to provide growers with hydrant equipment — hydrant fittings, keys, and RPZ units.
We, the undersigned urban farmers, community gardeners, workforce development programs, local food and health equity advocates, community organizations, emergency food responders and Chicago residents strongly support these solutions as a means to provide Chicago food producers with access to affordable water. This will ensure, both now and in the future, that these essential operations can continue to grow healthy, nutritious food for their communities and collectively contribute to the sustainable development of Chicago.
Advocates for Urban Agriculture, Austin Green Team, Big Green Chicago, Catatumbo Cooperative Farm, Chicago Community Gardeners Association, Chicago Farm Lab, Chicago Lights Urban Farm, Chicago Food Policy Action Council, Cooperation Operation, Garfield Park Community Council, Growing Solutions Farm, Illinois Environmental Council, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Slow Food Chicago, Stein Learning Gardens at Saint Sabina