April 18, 2016

What’s Next for MWRD

I note this from my perch on the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), which I assumed in late 2006. Consider what has transpired in the last nine years at the old sanitary district.

  • Disinfection technology installed at the Calumet Treatment Plant at 130th and Torrence in Chicago and the O’Brien Treatment Plant in Skokie, costing approximately one-tenth as much as former MWRD leaders said it would.
  • Green infrastructure projects including installation of rain gardens at elementary schools, distribution of 15,000 rain barrels (eventually), support for permeable parking lots, green roofs and other techniques to capture rain where it falls and keep it out of the sewers.
  • Stormwater plans, projects, and regulations seeking to govern new developments and redevelopments of a certain size in Cook County to prevent future flooding and projects to mitigate current flooding, including improved reservoirs, re-engineered culverts, streambank stabilization, buy-outs of homes in floodplains, support for 100-year municipal stormwater master plans, and more.
  • Pension Reform to address the District’s unfunded pension obligation (successfully adopted by the Illinois General Assembly in 2011).
  • Filing of a consent decree with the US Dept of Justice, including a firm schedule for completion of the reservoirs, a commitment to support green infrastructure projects, payment of a fine, and a recognition that the District’s Tunnel and Reservoir Plan serves as a long-term control plan to reduce combined sewer overflows.
  • Appointment of a new Executive Director: David St. Pierre joins the District in June 2011, becoming the first executive director in 50 years not appointed from within the ranks of current District employees.
  • Phosphorus recovery deployed the Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technology to remove phosphorus from wastewater and convert it into pellets that can be sold as fertilizer.
  • Completion of the Thornton Reservoir, part of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan to capture stormwater overflows, prevent pollution and reduce flooding.

I could probably go on. A lot has been happening at the old sanitary district and much of it is very good.

What’s Next?

Here’s a preview of some of the things I am working on and the issues that I think will be surfacing in the future.

Pharmaceutical Collection

One initiative is to expand the number and availability of safe, secure collection sites for people to dispose of their unused and expired medicines so they don’t flush them down the toilet or have them accumulate at home where they become a risk to seniors and to teens. Wastewater plants cannot remove the drugs that enter the waste stream either because our bodies don’t absorb all the medicine we take or because we flush medicine down the toilet. But we know that all sorts of pharmaceutical compounds are now being detected in drinking water and in waterways and some studies are beginning to show detrimental effects on aquatic life.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners is currently considering a very good ordinance that would expand the number of collection sites throughout Cook County and require pharmaceutical manufacturers to pay for the costs. Similar measures have already been adopted by several counties in California and one in Washington State. I encourage everyone in Cook County to support the adoption of the ordinance before the County Board. You can find more info here.

The Fourth Reservoir

You can read in my 2015 Annual Report about a nifty idea proposed by MWRD Executive Director David St. Pierre to capture rain from rooftops in a 2,000-gallon cistern system distributed throughout neighborhoods to take the load off the sewer system during rainstorms. I’d like to see this tested in a demonstration project in several city neighborhoods — it may be the only thing that can work to reduce the basement backups afflicting our urban areas.

Deploying Social Media to Change Behavior During Rain Storms

Chicago and 50 older suburbs in Cook County have combined sewers, meaning the sewer pipes running down the middle of our streets convey wastewater from our homes — from our toilets, showers, dishwashers and laundries — and also capture rain flowing down the drains in our streets. If the sewers are full, that rain/sewage mix can back up into basements or overflow directly into nearby streams and neither is a good thing. If people could be alerted during or prior to a rainstorm via tweet or text message or other techniques not to run their dishwashers or to delay taking showers or doing a load of laundry, that would help reduce the flow into sewers and possibly reduce overflows and backups. We ought to try.

One Water

Water is really one ecosystem and ought to be managed (and revered) as such. Yet our current structure of governance and management has placed water into silos: drinking water, used water, rain water. There is a movement afoot — called One Water — to remove the silos and manage water rationally.

Bringing the Farm Home

In my view, we need to grow food near cities, reducing the fossil fuels used to transport food, availing ourselves of arable land near urban centers (Think Peotone) and re-greening the great metropolis. Treated water from sewage plants is often used for irrigation; it could be so in Cook County too, providing jobs and training in sustainable agriculture for hundreds of people.

Landscape Mimicry

Let’s learn from the land, from history and from nature. To quote Bob Zimmerman of the Charles River Watershed Association, “Nature wants to hold on to precipitation, so water infiltrates the soils and collects in underground aquifers with tremendous storage capacity. What we typically do instead is to collect the water off impervious areas — parking lots, buildings, roadways, sidewalks, heavily compacted soils — in a storm drain in the side of the road and then throw it away. And of course, in the process of running across all of this pavement, the water also gets pretty heavily polluted — a regular pollution cocktail. If we were to mimic nature, we would not let that water get away. We would use techniques such as swales, rain gardens, and porous paving — techniques associated with Low Impact Development (LID) — to let it run through the soil to clean up the vast majority of those pollutants. In the summer, it would support plant life and trees, which provide cooling and sequester carbon, and in the winter, it would percolate back into the ground to recharge the aquifers, as it would have 300 years ago.” Chicago and the rest of Cook County were built on wet, mucky, marshy land. The way we live with water needs to recognize that and work with, rather than against, our native landscape.

I’ll bet you have some ideas of your own — let’s brainstorm together. You can reach me at debra@debrashore.org.