Debra Shore

About the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District

I believe we have a chance to show that people can live in a sustainable and harmonious way in and around a living wilderness; that we can be caring stewards — not merely users and abusers of these natural resources; that the Chicago region can have both a sound economy and a healthy ecology. But we have to have leaders who can take this message to the public.

The MWRD should be a leader in this effort.


The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is a little-known agency with a vital mission. Established by the Illinois State Legislature in 1889 as the Chicago Sanitary District, this new agency was charged with protecting the drinking water supply for the burgeoning metropolis of Chicago. At that time, Chicago residents sent all manner of human, animal and industrial waste directly into the Chicago River, which flowed into Lake Michigan. Storms often sent this polluted water toward the intake pipes providing the city’s drinking water — an unsafe and untenable situation.

The sanitary engineers of the time conceived of a plan to reverse the flow of the Chicago River by digging two large canals and building a lock at the mouth of the Chicago River, essentially using lake water to flush the city’s sewage downstream. This massive scheme was completed in 1900. (Read more about Chicago's flood and drainage control.) For more than 30 years, this system of canals and channels were literally open sewer pipes conveying waste down river and serving as a route for commercial barge traffic between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan.

By the late 1920s, more modern techniques of sewage treatment had been developed and the Sanitary District built seven wastewater treatment plants around Cook County, including what is regarded as the world’s largest at Stickney, implementing modern sewage treatment for the city and suburbs. The District’s service area for sewage treatment expanded to include almost all of Cook County — Chicago and 125 suburban communities — serving 5.3 million residents and industry and processing more than 1.5 billion gallons a day of wastewater. The annual budget now totals more than $1 billion. The agency changed its name to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District at its centennial in 1989.

Another major turning point in the District’s history — and a signal achievement — was the development of a plan to capture billions of gallons of stormwater overflow in a huge underground tunnel to reduce pollution in the Chicago waterways. Called the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), but popularly known as Deep Tunnel, this multibillion-dollar project was begun in the late 1960s. The tunnel portion — 109 miles burrowed in the deep limestone bedrock — was completed in May 2006 and has captured billions of gallons of stormwater overflows, reducing pollution in the rivers and preventing flooding. The Majewski Reservoir located near O’Hare Airport is already complete and can capture up to 325 million gallons of stormwater overflow. Two others, at Thornton and McCook, are still being excavated. Today the Thornton Transitional Reservoir can hold three billion gallons of stormwater runoff, which is later pumped to the Calumet plant for treatment.

Now, I believe the MWRD is poised on the cusp of a fourth great moment in its history that can define the agency for the rest of the 21st century. This era involves stormwater management. In 2004, the Illinois General Assembly granted authority to the MWRD to manage stormwater for Cook County, with an additional $50 million in tax revenues. This takes the District aboveground, where it must now deal with the rain falling on our landscape. The challenge we face is this: Will the MWRD see itself as a garbage collector, gathering a waste product (stormwater) and disposing of it by sending it into the sewers where it gets contaminated by mixing with sewage? Or will the MWRD see itself as a bank, collecting deposits of precious liquid assets (rainwater) and investing them wisely in our communities?

The District has prepared a draft Watershed Management Ordinance for Cook County that will set minimum standards for retention and detention of rain on site and enhance water quality in area waterways. Additionally, the ordinance should help to reduce future flooding by requiring capture of water where it falls, possibly through a suite of techniques known as “green infrastructure” that seek to mimic the way nature works.

As with most public agencies, the MWRD faces significant budget challenges — an unfunded pension obligation, rising health care costs for employees and energy costs for operations, aging infrastructure and declining revenues. Unlike most utilities, which charge fees for the services they provide, the Water Reclamation District’s operating budget — roughly $450 million in 2011 — comes principally from Cook County property taxes. While the District’s tax base is broad and diverse, permitting it to earn and retain three AAA bond ratings, the agency is also bound by a tax cap, limiting its ability to generate new revenues. Such challenges also provide opportunities for MWRD to remake itself as a resource recovery agency, converting solid waste to energy and looking for ways to re-use the water leaving its treatment plants.

The Facts…

…About Water and Water Use

…About the MWRD

…About Our Region’s History of Water Reclamation