Chicago urban growers fight for affordable and equitable water access

Gina Jamison, owner of Kuumba Tre-Ahm garden
Gina Jamison, owner of the Kuumba Tre-Ahm Community Garden, takes pride in her garden bringing people together. This year, though, she has faced issues of water access from the fire hydrants near her garden. (Carlyn Kranking/MEDILL)

By Caroline Catherman and Carlyn Kranking
Medill Reports

Urban farms and community gardens in Chicago produce over 500,000 pounds of crops in a year, according to a 2015 study by DePaul University and NeighborSpace. Much of this food helps feed Chicago communities.

Local food sources are especially crucial in a pandemic. When food has to travel great distances or relies on the availability of many workers, it’s more susceptible to delays caused by COVID-19.

“The pandemic created a huge rift in our food supply chain,” said Sean Ruane, director of Advocates for Urban Agriculture. “It really, I think, has helped people to recognize the importance of purchasing local.”

But local growers worry these valued food sources are in jeopardy as they face barriers to water access.

In an urban landscape, many gardeners and farmers rely on fire hydrants to water their crops. However, this February, Chicago’s Department of Water Management released a new hydrant permit policy that made it expensive and difficult to gain access to hydrants.

Since then, growers and activists have been fighting for changes. They did earn a win this summer when the department updated the water policy, but it didn’t do enough to placate growers. More than 3,500 people have signed a petition called “Equitable Water Access for Chicago Food Security” to ask Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Department of Water Management to change the policy.

“It’s really challenging trying to grow vegetables when we don’t have proper access to water,” Chicago grower Dulce Morales said at an Oct. 1 webinar on water access. “Plants do not produce well when they’re not watered.”

Barriers to hydrant access

A graphic — a custodian cap on top of a fire hydrant can prevent growers from accessing it. The RPZ valve, required under the hydrant permit policy, is a device meant to prevent backflow and protect water from contamination. This, including installation and other costs, could carry a $1,500 price tag.
The custodian cap and the reduced pressure zone (RPZ) valve are just two barriers to hydrant access. (Carlyn Kranking/MEDILL)

The February policy required growers to use a reduced pressure zone (RPZ) valve to help prevent water contamination. This piece of equipment — including installation and certification — can cost growers $1,500. Add that to the costs of the permits and custodian cap removal, if necessary, and using a hydrant came with a high price tag — with no financial support from the Department of Water Management.

Additionally, farms had to pay a festival fee for using hydrants. This fee, according to Ruane, was $83 per day, per side of the hydrant.

“An urban farm would essentially pay more for water in two days of using a hydrant than a community garden would pay in an entire year,” Ruane said.

The updated policy, however, scrapped that provision and charges the same rate for urban farms and community gardens, a change Ruane described as a “huge win.”

Still, the changes to this policy don’t benefit all growers. The updated policy keeps the RPZ requirement and mandates that every permit-seeking garden operation have general liability insurance. While for-profit farms may already be insured, community gardens generally are not.

“The updates benefit the for-profit entities, but did nothing to alleviate things for community gardens,” said May Toy, a member of the Chicago Community Gardeners Association resources committee.

Toy said she wants the city to understand the difference between commercial growers and community gardens. These permit policies can’t treat both entities the same way, she said.

“I’m not saying that the city shouldn’t charge, per se, but there needs to be a better understanding of who can afford what, instead of having a blanket policy applied to everybody,” Toy said.

Irrigating school gardens

Not every water access problem in the city can be attributed to the hydrant permit policy. Some gardens suffer because they aren’t located near water sources.

Big Green, an organization that promotes garden-based education, helps manage 200 school gardens across Chicago. Some of these gardens use water from the school’s spigot. If that’s far away, it requires a great deal of work to irrigate — connecting the hose, rolling it out, watering, disconnecting the hose and storing the system away.

It may seem like a small problem, said Sam Koentopp, Chicago program manager for Big Green, but it’s a big deal for educators and growers.

“There’s already a lot of pressures on being a farmer or growing your own food,” Koentopp said. “So any time there’s a barrier, it complicates and makes challenges that oftentimes could be the difference between success and failure.”

Typically, Big Green gardens send the produce home with their students or give it to the school cafeteria. During the pandemic, students might not be in the gardens much, so the food is returned to the community in other ways.

“We’ve just been kind of alone in gardens and growing food, and then that food has been donated either to a school distribution site or … a food pantry,” said Ilana Marder-Eppstein, a garden educator for Big Green.

A sweet potato at the Kuumba Tre-Ahm Community Garden
Community members and elementary school students have plots at Gina Jamison’s Kuumba Tre-Ahm Community Garden. Extra produce is given back to the community. (Carlyn Kranking/MEDILL)

‘More than just growing vegetables’

With crops feeding neighbors, children using the gardens to learn and communities forming around green space, gardeners emphasize that this fight for water is deeper than it may look.

“It’s more than just growing vegetables, it’s so much more,” said Gina Jamison, chair of the Chicago Community Gardeners Association health and wellness committee. “It puts a connection with the community.”

Jamison owns the Kuumba Tre-Ahm garden in Garfield Park, named for the sixth principle of Kwanzaa and her two grandsons.

She said she used to see drug dealers on a nearby corner, but now she hasn’t seen them for 10 years. She recalls that a new U.S. citizen moved into the neighborhood and integrated himself into the community by growing tomatoes in the garden. Jamison even has a few plots for first and fourth graders who attend the school across the street.

“And then when we have a lot of extra produce, we just give it away to the community,” Jamison said. “We just give it away right there on the block.”

But Jamison’s garden still struggles with access to water. The three hydrants nearest to her have custodian caps, locks that close the hydrants so that only authorized people can use them. The city won’t remove these caps, she said, so she uses rain barrel water to avoid carrying water from a hydrant on another block.

Advocates for Urban Agriculture wants growers to have reliable water access by the start of the 2021 growing season, which generally begins in March.

At the Oct. 1 virtual panel on water access, Ruane said Advocates for Urban Agriculture has spoken to aldermen about this issue. They heard from several aldermen that simply five to ten calls or emails from their constituents can encourage them to look further into a topic.

Ruane encouraged webinar attendees to make their voices heard: “Don’t underestimate the impact you can have as a person,” he said.

Caroline Catherman and Carlyn Kranking are Health, Environment and Science reporters at Medill. You can follow them on Twitter at @CECatherman and @carlyn_kranking.