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 city planners and 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 nearly 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 ultimately 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 municipalities — 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 $1.3 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 waterways and contributing significantly to improved water quality.
The Majewski Reservoir located near O’Hare Airport was completed in 1998 and can capture up to 325 million gallons of stormwater overflow. The Thornton Reservoir, part of a limestone quarry visible from I–80 near Hodgkins, will be completed in 2015. When fully operative, the Thornton reservoir will hold approximately 7.9 billion gallons of stormwater, reducing combined sewer overflows for nine villages. The McCook Reservoir, adjacent to I–55, is being excavated and will be completed in two stages. The first stage, due to be finished in 2017, will capture 3.5 billion gallons of stormwater overflows. The second stage, bringing the total capacity to 10 billion gallons, will be completed in 2029.
When these reservoirs are fully online, CSOs into the Chicago waterways should be eliminated or significantly reduced.
However, we are witnessing increasingly intense rainstorms in northeastern Illinois that I believe may be a symptom of climate change. (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report suggests that the Midwest may see a change in the period of rainfall and more intense rain events, but not necessarily more overall precipitation.)
The sewer and water pipes laid beneath the streets in every village and town in Cook County are owned and maintained (or should be) by each municipality. The 554 miles of larger interceptor pipes owned conveying wastewater and stormwater to sewage treatments plants are owned and maintain by the MWRD. But the local pipes are generally designed to hold as much water as is produced by a five–year storm — what is calculated to be 3.8” in a 24–hour period.
The more severe storms afflicting Cook County have dumped far more rain in a shorter period of time, overwhelming the capacity of any local sewer system to deal with them. The result? Widespread flooding and basement backups; property damage and ruined goods.
In 2004, the Illinois General Assembly granted authority to the MWRD to manage stormwater for Cook County, with an additional taxing authority (up to $46.6 million in the 2015 budget). Stormwater management takes the District aboveground and into people’s homes and businesses in a way that sewage treatment had not.
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?
In 2013, the District adopted a Watershed Management Ordinance for Cook County that sets minimum standards for retention and detention of rain on sites where development and redevelopment is taking place both to prevent additional flooding and to enhance water quality in area waterways. Additionally, the ordinance should help to reduce future flooding by promoting use of green infrastructure, a suite of techniques such as rain gardens and green roofs 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 2014 — comes principally from Cook County property taxes. While the District’s tax base is broad and diverse, permitting it to earn and retain two AAA bond ratings, a tax cap, limiting its ability to generate new revenues, also binds the agency. (MWRD’s total 2015 budget, including capital projects and revenues from leasing of land, user charges, and a few other sources, came to $1.2 billion.)
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 reuse the water leaving its treatment plants.