In her first major initiative as new Augustana College president, Andrea Talentino on Wednesday announced an innovative partnership between the private liberal arts school and the city of Rock Island — to replace lead water service lines across the city.
In the aftermath of the public health crisis in Flint, Mich., and other American cities, Illinois passed a law in 2021 to help protect communities and citizens from the dangers of lead pipes. In response, Augustana College students and faculty are taking their studies into the community to understand the issues and help find solutions.
In a Wednesday press conference outside the Steve and Jane Bahls Campus Leadership Center (formerly Founders Hall, named for the immediate past college president), Talentino and other Augie leaders explained the new cooperative program.
“It’s really a perfect example of what an engaged education can be,” she said. “We are delighted to partner with the city of Rock Island to achieve a goal that I know we all consider valuable and that’s all about having a positive impact on the region.”
The new project exemplifies the commitment of “serving others, which is a central part of Augustana’s mission,” she said.
Talentino became Augie’s first female president on July 1, 2022.
“It’s also particularly meaningful to me and exciting to me that this is my first address or public moment like this – because I am very committed to partnership with community,” she said Wednesday.
The project allows the college to create “even closer ties with the city of Rock Island, which for generations has been an ideal hometown for Augustana and a source of incredible opportunities for our students,” Talentino said.
This also showcases the importance of collaboration, to do good for the region, she said.
Tackling real-world problems
The partnership with the city will help students to tackle the social, economic and environmental problems that society is facing, said Dr. Michael Reisner, director of Augustana’s nine-year-old Upper Mississippi Center for Sustainable Communities.
Students will get hands-on experience when they help the city comply with the new state law.
“It really does prioritize building bridges and engaging communities,” Reisner said. “It transforms these community challenges into real-world, community-based learning experiences for our students.”
In 2021, the state enacted the Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act, which requires that cities inventory lead service lines (LSLs), replace all lines within deadlines, and implement financing strategies to fund such replacements.
The replacement of both utility-owned and privately owned portions of the LSLs is required. The act also requires that the entire process be equitable by requiring the prioritization of low-income neighborhoods, according to a college release.
The UMC has partnered with the city before on smaller projects, Reisner said.
LSL poses a public health threat to children and adults. According to the CDC, there are no safe levels of lead for humans to ingest, Reisner said.
Rock Island has approximately 15,000 water service lines, and about 12,000 are older than 1986 — predating when lead service lines were prohibited. The Illinois law says once an inventory is completed, cities have two years to create a replacement plan, and then up to 20 years to replace the lead lines
Of the 12,000 lines, they don’t know the primary material from which the pipes are made, he said. The law requires the city and utilities to inventory their LSLs, and have a replacement plan in place by spring 2024.
Using Augie’s expertise
“We’re excited at the center, because this problem is complex and it’s really gonna require combining two approaches that liberal-arts schools like Augustana excel at doing,” Reisner said.
Those are interdisciplinary approaches – bringing together a diverse array of disciplines to understand the issue, and a collaborative approach, to also bring together stakeholders in the community to understand how to tackle the problem.
The first thing the project will do is to get an accurate inventory of the LSLs, Reisner said. “We need to understand how big of a scale of a problem we have,” he said.
A community advisory board will be formed – with representatives from Augie, the city staff and community leaders and citizens – to offer feedback as issues arise, and identify questions, barriers and challenges.
“I’m really excited to bring the collective resources of Augustana together to work on making sure this law is implemented in a fair and equitable manner,” Reisner said.
It will also partner with Augie’s new Center for the Advancement of Community Health and Wellness, headed by Dr. Kimberly Murphy. Both centers are housed in Hanson Hall of Science.
Murphy explained that the approach “is very much an interdisciplinary project,” in the way it will bring together students and faculty from all majors — with different skill sets and perspectives – to help tackle a real-life problem close to campus.
It will also help build more diverse, equitable and inclusive communities by reducing and eliminating social, environmental and economic inequities. LSLs disproportionately affect lower-income households, with older homes, and the most vulnerable neighborhoods, Murphy said.
“Ethical, courageous servant leaders”
Augie students aim to be “ethical, courageous servant leaders, capable of tackling humanity’s most complex, daunting challenges,” she said. “Experiences such as this partnership really help our students grow, learn and be adaptable and flexible, as problem solvers, with durable skills ready for life after Augustana.”
Under Reisner’s leadership, the Upper Mississippi Center has led projects across the region to help communities, starting with a project in Clinton, Iowa, in 2016. This will be the center’s second project in the hometown of the 162-year-old college, and it will be the first project for the Center for the Advancement of Community Health and Wellness.:
“The city of Rock Island is very excited to engage in this collaboration and partnership with Augustana,” Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms said Wednesday.
“There have been a number of projects over the years that the city and Augustana have collaborated on, and we want to continue that process with this project,” he said. “We’ve done street replacements, we’ve done marketing research, and others with Augustana and they’ve been very successful. We’re glad to have Augustana here in the city of Rock Island, and partner with them on a number of projects and look forward to that in the future.”
Once the LSL inventory is done, the city will apply to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for funding to replace the water lines.
On Wednesday, the Illinois EPA announced $4 million in funding to the City of Chicago (Cook County) to replace lead service lines. The funding is provided through a low-interest loan from the Illinois EPA’s State Revolving Fund, which provides funding for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater projects.
Chicago will use the funding to replace LSLs at day cares throughout the city. Both public and private components of the service lines containing lead will be replaced. Chicago has approximately 400,000 lead service lines within its water distribution system and is implementing the Lead-Safe Chicago program to eliminate these lines, according to a news release.
Lead is a toxic metal that can accumulate in the body over time that can enter drinking water when corrosion of pipes and/or fixtures occurs. Eliminating LSLs in homes will help to reduce lead exposure for residents.