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City revises fire hydrant policy that drained urban gardens

Advocates for Urban Agriculture also launched a grant to help gardens pay for tapping into hydrants under the new policy

July 28th, 2020 8:47 PM

Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago

 Community gardens and urban farms might have an easier time getting the water they need after the city changed its fire hydrant policy.

The mid-summer changes reduce some of the barriers that have prevented many urban growers from using city water for much of the season.

The previous rules, introduced in the winter, made it so community gardens were required to pay hundreds of dollars for the equipment and installation necessary to apply for a permit to tap into the hydrants.

They came with headaches for gardeners: Even after a community garden in Humboldt Park did all that, they heard nothing from the city for weeks and relied on a neighbor's water to care for their plots.

The city rolled back some of the cumbersome and expensive new rules, and nonprofit Advocates for Urban Agriculture has stepped up to offer grants to cover the steep costs of tapping hydrants.

"I think this is a really positive step in the right direction of creating a policy that makes it more affordable to access water," said Sean Ruane, executive director of Advocates for Urban Agriculture, which worked with the city to push for some of the improvements.

New Hydrant Rules

  • Community gardens no longer have to create a nonprofit.

The water department relaxed rules that had allowed the community garden hydrant permit to be available only to gardens that were also nonprofits. That rule was a daunting administrative burden for smaller volunteer-run gardens since they would have to go through a legal process to form a nonprofit. The formation of a nonprofit is no longer required.

  • Bans on sale of produce are lifted.

Selling produce grown with water from the hydrants was previously banned, but the city is now allowing community gardens using the hydrants to make incidental sales.

  • Urban farms can apply for less-costly permits.

For the first time, urban farms can get a permit that will allow them to use fire hydrants for water at a flat rate.

Until now, urban farms could only use hydrants if they used a permit typically designated for street festivals. That permit costs $83 per day, too high a cost for most urban farms to break even.

"Really, the only farms doing that were ones with enough funding and institutional support to be able to cover that cost, which is not the majority of farms and gardens in the city," Ruane said.

The revised rules make it so urban farms can qualify for the same permit as community gardens, which allows the hydrants to be used for the entire growing season instead of a daily rate. That permit now costs about $117 for a farm up to 3,000 square feet. Each additional 3,000 square feet tacks on another $50.

  • Inspections for valves reduced to once annually.

To qualify for the permit, farms and gardens must still use a backflow prevention device designed to protect the city's water supply from contamination through the hydrant. Previously, growers were allowed to use a $5 piece of hardware, but this year the water department began requiring a heftier device, a reduced pressure zone valve.

The price of the valve plus installation by a licensed union plumber as required by the city brings the total cost to at least $1,500.

Water department rules initially released in the winter required gardens to have the valves tapping the hydrants to be recertified twice a year, which could cost up to $200 each time.

But in response to outcry from gardeners, the city has lowered the requirement so the hydrants need to be inspected only once annually, which Ruane describes as a major victory for gardeners.

"We're still not sure about how effective this updated policy will actually be for farms and gardens because of some of the other changes that make it challenging to actually utilize it," Ruane said.

Not all of the policy updates will help the gardeners, though.

Some new rules include a new temporary hydrant use legal agreement signed by the owner of the garden's land. The city also now requires gardens have insurance for their operations.

"It kind of implies that you have to take time with a lawyer or some kind of legal representative to help craft the document, which is an administrative barrier," Ruane said.

A spokesperson for the water department said the administrative revisions were made to protect the city's water quality, but they were working with growers to make improvements.

"The city has been meeting with urban gardening representatives to address their concerns," the spokesperson said in a statement.

Financial Support for Gardeners

Advocates submitted a proposal asking for the city to include financial support to gardens struggling to come up with the $1,700 needed for the equipment and installation needed to begin tapping the hydrants. They also have an ongoing petition calling on the city to help defray the costs of their new permit requirements.

Despite their lobbying, mid-season revisions to the hydrant policy didn't include any funding to help offset for hydrant fittings, backflow prevention valves or installation costs.

"Because of that, we've just decided that we're going to try to take it into our own hands, recognizing that this is an immediate issue that needs to be solved," Ruane said.

Advocates for Urban Agriculture secured funding from donors to offer up to 45 grants to urban farms and gardens to help cover hydrant costs. The grant would pay for the valve, installation and for certification of the equipment required for the permit. Grants will be reviewed on a first come, first served basis.

The organization also put together a Chicago Growers Guide that includes information on navigating the newly revised hydrant policy.

Gardeners in need of financial support can apply online.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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