December 4, 2012

Installation Remarks

Patrick Thompson, Kari Steele and Debra Shore at their installation as MWRD Commissioners.

Patrick Thompson, Kari Steele and Debra Shore at their installation as MWRD Commissioners.

Good afternoon everyone — distinguished guests, fellow commissioners, friends. I am so privileged to have you join us today to witness this installation ceremony. I want to acknowledge and thank a few very special people — my partner, Kathleen Gillespie; my son Ben Smith, who traveled from Seattle; my sister Wendy and her boyfriend BJ from Dallas; my brother Andrew and his partner Sam from Ft. Lauderdale; my cousins Steve and Helen from Ann Arbor.

Two people are not here with us today whom I also want to acknowledge and thank, my parents, of blessed memory, Herbert and Selma Shore. They died before they could see me enter this fulfilling new chapter in my life of serving in public office, but they lived their lives in devotion and service to others. They would have been so proud.

I want to congratulate and welcome my running mates, Kari Steele and Patrick Thompson. They bring energy, intelligence, new skill sets, and fresh perspectives to this board. We spent more than a year on the campaign trail and my admiration and respect for them continues to grow. And together they will lower the average age of our board by about a decade.

I want to thank my current colleagues for your insight, hard work, thoughtfulness and collegial spirit. It is a pleasure and an honor to continue to learn from and work with you, and to count you among my friends. And I want to thank my staff, Jan Rowland and Josh Anderson, for making me look good.

Seven years ago I ran for a seat on the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago because I believed that water is going to be “the” issue in years to come and that this agency has a vital role in managing our precious freshwater resources — protecting the drinking water supply, treating wastewater, managing stormwater. Today, I’m more convinced of that than ever.

As Chicago was planning the Columbian Exposition of 1893, sponsors worried that people might get sick from water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid because our city did not then have a safe, secure source of drinking water. It was up to the Bureau of Public Comfort to assure visitors that water in the drinking fountains at the Exposition was filtered or sterilized. In fact, one entrepreneur laid 100 miles of pipe from springs south of Waukesha, Wisconsin to deliver freshwater to Exposition visitors, though accounts report that it arrived too warm and flat-tasting.

We all know how Chicago ultimately dealt with that issue: 123 years ago, we reversed a river and saved a city. It was bold and relatively cheap. And no one ever imagined that one day people would canoe or kayak on these waterways; no one envisioned that the Chicago River could become part of a vibrant 21st century metropolis, that the number of fish species would increase, that endangered black-crowned night-herons would make a home here, that people would no longer turn their backs to the water but see it as an amenity and an attraction.

No question the construction of the 76-mile Chicago Area Waterways system was a magnificent engineering feat and allowed Chicago to become a great metropolis. Now, more than a century later, it may be time to be bold and audacious again as we study what a river flow restoration might mean.

Over the years as Chicago and its suburbs sent raw sewage diluted by lake water downstream, the innovative engineers at the Sanitary District developed numerous improvements and new techniques for sewage treatment. Our executive director, David St. Pierre, will proudly share page after page of ‘firsts’ that the District can claim.

Yet there have been no major innovations in water and wastewater treatment since the mid-1950s. Sure there are computers and flat screens in the plants, variable frequency drive motors and so forth, but this IS your fathers’ sewage treatment process and your grandfathers’ as well. All this while other sectors of our economy have been completely transformed by technology — publishing, music, design, communications, and energy.

My point is that today we face daunting challenges — aging infrastructure, dramatically more intense rainstorms causing widespread flooding and basement backups, Asian carp and other invasive species threatening the health of our waterways, limited financial resources, and an institutional culture that embraces change at the pace of a government agency.

The District must stay focused on its core mission — continuing to protect our water supply and treat our waste — while reinventing itself as a 21st century agency seeking to redefine and monetize waste: the methane gas produced by the sewage treatment process, the phosphorus and nitrogen remaining in the wastewater, the nutrients in biosolids, even the treated water itself that can be re-used in industrial processes and for irrigation before it’s sent downstream. What a propitious time to be here!

Let’s consider the future: What if the District were to unleash the knowledge, talent, and competitive spirit of the staff to develop innovative approaches to resource recovery? Our Director of Engineering has a plan for the District to become energy neutral in a decade — think of that! Today we spend more than $50 million a year on energy costs.

What if the District were to become the lead agency promoting water conservation in Cook County? Saving water saves energy and gives a longer life to the treatment facilities, all good things.

What if the District developed new lending tools, its own revolving loan fund or infrastructure bank, to collaborate with municipalities to solve flooding problems and enhance quality of life? What if this agency became the leader in providing technical assistance to homeowners to install rain gardens and permeable driveways and created incentives for them to do so? What if the District’s lands became not only an important source of revenue through leases, but also demonstration sites for best management in stormwater capture, habitat for rare species, recreational centers, and vital carbon sinks in a warming world?

In his definitive environmental history of Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon held that Chicago became the great American metropolis because of what he called “the intersecting geographies of nature and capital.” What Cronon meant was human capital as well as financial resources — the creativity, vision, and energy of city planners and leaders, including sanitary and civil engineers, who made no little plans, who dreamt big, and who helped to make our region so vibrant and robust.

I believe that the Chicago region is poised to become Nature’s Metropolis for the 21st century and if it does, it will be because of ecology and economy combined, those intersecting geographies of nature and capital. This agency has a vital role to play. I am so privileged to be a part of it.

I know my colleagues and I are up to the task and raring to go. So let us begin.

Thank you and may God bless you.

Delivered by Commissioner Debra Shore 12.4.2012