2014 Annual Report

In the last century, we moved water to people; in this century, people will move to water. That’s according to Charles Fishman’s captivating and provocative book The Big Thirst. And why not? Residents of East Porterville, California went without water for more than five months in 2014: their wells had run dry. Reservoirs for Sao Paolo’s 20 million people are dangerously low. Among the 2015 World Economic Forum’s list of Global Risks, water crises ranked first.

When it pours

3.6” in 40 minutes. That’s how much rain fell between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. in Burbank, IL, near Midway Airport on August 22, 2014. That’s greater than a 100-year storm, meaning there’s one chance in 100 that so much rain will fall each year.

In an average year, Cook County receives 35 inches of precipitation (rain and snow combined). But the County is so large, and rain and snowfall vary so widely over its expanse, that the figures for 2014 are especially telling.

The year-end total amount of precipitation for Burbank was 52 inches — 12 inches above the annual average for that site, breaking the record. Yet the National Weather Service observation station at O’Hare Airport, a mere 17 miles away, recorded 39.47 inches. That’s equal to 212,000,000 fewer gallons of rain per square mile than fell on Burbank.

When we think about flooding problems, basement backups, and the widespread wet and soggy trauma we’ve been experiencing, we need to consider a number of factors: intensity, topography, surface cover, and infrastructure, among them.

Flooded Street, Wilmette
Photo: Brigitte Berger

Flooded Street, Wilmette

Photo: Brigitte Berger


I’ve been pondering intensity, in part, because it seems we’re experiencing not only more rainfall — 2008 and 2011 were two of the wettest years on record — but also more intense rainstorms. Which is to say, deluges of near biblical proportions inundating different parts of Cook County at different times.

Picture a bucket full of water. If you pour that water out steadily and slowly so that the bucket empties over the course of a day, the ground can absorb that slow flow, or the rain will trickle off an impervious surface like parking lots and rooftops. If you dump the contents of the bucket all at once, you’ve got a gusher overwhelming the capacity of any pipe to deal with it.

Look at these figures from 2014:

  • During the August 22 storm, Oak Lawn received 4.51” of rain in one hour.
  • On August 4, Westchester received 4” of rain in less than two hours.
  • During the July 12 storm, Chicago’s Morgan Park went from no rainfall at 8:28 a.m. to rain falling at a rate of 2.62” per hour only six minutes later. By 8:40 a.m., a mere six minutes after that, the rainfall rate dropped to only 0.42” per hour.
  • Alsip received 1.11” of rain in little more than one hour during the July 12 storm.

Four inches of rain falling steadily over a 24–hour period is a lot of water, but our sewers were designed and built to accommodate that rate of flow. Four inches of rain in an hour — well, NO sewer system in the metropolitan area can hold that amount of water.


We live in a low-lying, marshy, mucky, wet land. Che-ca-gou was the Native American name for the nodding wild onion that grew in profusion along the river banks. “Skokie” is the Pottawatomie Indian word for “marsh.” We live in Riverside, River Forest, River Grove and Riverdale, Streamwood, Blue Island, Brookfield and Western Springs, Bridgeview and Des Plaines.

Water flows downhill, true, but there is almost no downhill in our region to draw water away from us. The distance between the highest point in Wilmette and the lowest is 26 feet. Water will make its way to the lowest point in an area, then puddle and pool — waiting to evaporate, filter into the ground, or be pumped somewhere else.

Wilmette Elevation
Photo courtesy of Christopher Burke Engineering

Wilmette Elevation

Photo courtesy of Christopher Burke Engineering

While some of the soil in Cook County is sandy, allowing for easy infiltration of water to recharge groundwater deeper below the surface, many areas have a clay layer 12–18 inches below the surface, which blocks infiltration. The ground can become saturated fairly quickly in some places, limiting its ability to absorb more water.

Land Cover

We live in a magnificent metropolitan area, and we’ve given water few places to go. By some estimates, Cook County is now 42 percent impervious surface. We’ve paved and built and covered over the land. We can try to peel away some of the concrete skin we’ve laid over the landscape; we can attempt to mimic, through green infrastructure, nature’s ability to capture and absorb rain; but we cannot build pipes or reservoirs large enough to prevent these new intense rainstorms from causing flooding and property damage.

Insufficient Infrastructure

The sewer pipes under the streets in most municipalities were designed to handle a five-year storm, or 3.8” in a 24-hour period. When 1.2” falls in 10 minutes, as in Des Plaines on August 22, 2014, it overwhelms the capacity of the sewers to convey that water to the larger intercepting sewers. As a result, sewers overflow into nearby waterways; sewage backs up into basements; increased pressure blows out manhole covers; and widespread flooding occurs.

In the period between June 30 and August 24, 2014, some municipalities received between a third and nearly half of the total annual rainfall they typically record. And that’s not spread out evenly over those 56 days, but is concentrated in a handful of intense rain events.

  • Between June 30 and August 24, Oak Lawn received 35.99 percent of its annual rainfall (14.07” fell; annual average is 39.09”).
  • Bridgeview received 46.41 percent of its annual rainfall (18.14” fell; average is 39.09”).
  • Schaumburg received 33.42 percent of its annual rainfall (12.33” fell; average is 36.89”).

Imagine if one-third of all the food you eat in an entire year were dropped in front of you in the space of a few days or hours. (On average, Americans consume nearly 2,000 pounds of food a year.) Not pretty.

A recent study by Christopher Burke Engineering described the western section of Wilmette as “topographically flat in most areas with the exception of higher ground along Ridge Road... This portion of the Village was primarily developed in the 1930s through 1950s, prior to modern stormwater management practices. As such, there is limited stormwater storage, no overland flow routes and the storm sewer system was not designed based on current rainfall standards. In addition, the older residential structures were not constructed sufficiently high in comparison to the streets, leading to flooding of the residential structures once the flood depth in the street exceeds a certain depth. The flooding can be a result of water entering basement window sills, stairwells, first floor openings, footing drains or excessive seepage from severely saturated ground adjacent to the home... There are very few open places where excess runoff can be directed and stored.” (emphasis added)

On June 30, 2014, Wilmette received 1.82” in 30 minutes. By midnight, a total of 3.61” had fallen (a two-year, 24-hour storm is 3.04”).

Current infrastructure capacity adds to the problem of flat land in Wilmette. The majority of the storm sewers in the western portion of the Village were built to handle a two-year storm, whereas the standard for most municipalities is to build sewers with the capacity to handle a five-year storm.

Other municipalities in Cook County have not been able to maintain their sewers. Good practice is to inspect and clean five percent of the system each year. Yet one municipality admitted — and it is not alone — that the sewers in a neighborhood of frequent flooding had not been inspected or cleaned in 20 years. If there is a collapsed sewer, or sediment buildup, or blockage, no wonder residents experience problems in rainstorms!

We Got Trouble, My Friends, Right Here in River City

Questions to ask village officials: How recently were the sewers inspected and cleaned in your neighborhood, and what is the maintenance interval for the village? Would the village consider adopting a matching grant program for installation of flood protection systems (overhead sewers or check valves) as Glenview and Oak Park have? Does the village have a stormwater plan that incorporates green infrastructure?

Peak Phosphorus

“We may be able to substitute nuclear power for coal, and plastics for wood, and yeast for meat, and friendliness for isolation — but for phosphorus there is neither substitute nor replacement.”

— Isaac Asimov

Consider phosphorus. It’s the 11th most abundant element on Earth, absolutely essential for human survival because plants need it to grow. It’s found in nearly all the food we eat and is required for our cells to function properly. It’s in our bones and teeth. By weight, we humans are about one percent phosphorus. But the amount of accessible phosphorus on Earth is limited, and there is no artificial or synthetic phosphorus. Thus, when we run out of phosphorus, we run out of food. Hence the Asimov quote on the cover of this report.

“Peak phosphorus” refers to the point at which phosphorus production reaches its highest point and total reserves begin to decline. After this point, prices generally begin to increase, global and political tensions rise, and phosphorus-dependent activities or industries become more constrained. Moreover, because phosphate rock is non-renewable and varies in quality — with the best rock mined first — the quality of available phosphorus reserves diminishes over time.

The amount of phosphate accessible in rock is already declining — we’re mining like mad and using it for fertilizer — and some scientists and policymakers warn that the global supply of available phosphorus may run out by the end of the century or sooner.

Based on the most recent estimate from the United States Geological Survey, 75 percent of available phosphorus reserves are located in Morocco. With only six percent of global reserves, China has the next largest store, followed by Algeria, Syria, South Africa, Russia, Jordan, and the United States (mostly in Florida). Note how many of these countries might be considered geopolitically unstable (including Florida?).

Moreover, it’s estimated that only 16 billion tons of the 67 billion tons worldwide can be mined economically. Lower-quality phosphate rock is more difficult to mine and produces more heavy metals that can contaminate nearby lands and waters. Of the phosphate rock that is mined for food production, most goes to waste: 30–40 percent of phosphate rock is lost during mining and processing, and 50 percent is lost somewhere along the food chain. Each year, 37 million tons of phosphorus is released into the environment, most of which enters lakes, streams, and rivers. Phosphorus in waterways is harmful, causing huge blooms of microscopic plants called algae to grow and suck up all the oxygen, leaving none for fish and other aquatic life. More than 400,000 people were left without safe drinking water in August 2014 when microcystin, found in a particular algae bloom, rendered the water in Toledo, Ohio toxic.

Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio
Photo courtesy of MODIS/NASA

Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio

Photo courtesy of MODIS/NASA

Technically, we can’t run out of phosphorus because, like water, it can be neither created nor destroyed. But we are in the process of reducing the useful, “gettable” reserves of phosphorus and sending it through runoff and wastewater discharge to the oceans, where it will settle in mud at the bottom and not be returned to land except by geological processes requiring millions of years. Ugh.

We need phosphorus to grow food — there are more and more people in the world who need food to survive, and we’re exhausting the phosphate reserves in mines around the world. What’s to be done?

Take heart: the MWRD has embarked on a new project, in partnership with Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, to remove 1,150 tons of phosphorus a year from the waste stream at the Stickney treatment plant and convert it into 10,000 tons of a slow-release fertilizer that can be sold. Even better, the fertilizer is not water-soluble, so rain won’t cause harmful runoff from farm fields into nearby streams.

Instead of sending phosphorus in wastewater effluent to the Gulf of Mexico, where it contributes to a dead zone devoid of aquatic life, the new process will turn this waste product into a valuable — and essential — resource, generating revenue for the District and producing something in the Midwest that can be used in the Midwest. How cool is that?! The MWRD/Ostara facility should be available for tours sometime in the fall of 2015.

How We Use Our Water

Resource Recovery: Water 2.0

Doesn’t it make sense to use water more than once before we send it to the Gulf of Mexico? Chicago and other Illinois municipalities withdraw more than a billion gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan. It’s filtered, cleaned, and sent through pipes to our homes and businesses, but after we use it, and after it’s treated at the MWRD’s seven wastewater treatment plants in Cook County, the treated water — called effluent — is discharged into the Chicago Area Waterways and flushes out into the Gulf. In many places, where fresh water is scarce and costly, treated water is used for agricultural irrigation or for a variety of industrial purposes. Here we effectively throw it away — neither smart nor sustainable, I say.

Major water users in proximity to Calumet Treatment Plant

Major water users in proximity to Calumet Treatment Plant

When the Chicago Tribune solicited ideas for the next “Plan of Chicago” in 2013, I submitted an essay outlining how Chicago’s access to fresh water positions it to have a robust economy. “Create an enterprise zone surrounding the MWRD’s Calumet treatment plant on 130th Street near Torrence Avenue where industries could buy wastewater cheaper than potable water,” I proposed. (The Calumet plant treats some 300 million gallons of wastewater daily, reusing virtually none. Disinfection of treated water there will increase the quality of effluent by 2016.)

Since then, Chicago architect Martin Felsen seized upon the idea and has engaged architecture and landscape architecture students at the Illinois Institute of Technology in a year-long design studio devoted to a Water Enterprise Zone in the vicinity of the Calumet plant. Argonne engineer Seth Snyder is developing a regional partnership for research, collaboration, and tech transfer in the freshwater and water reuse sector in Chicago. And the MWRD is working with Illinois American Water to explore opportunities for industrial reuse of effluent from the Calumet plant.

In September, the Tribune included my proposal for water reuse as one of the first dozen ideas they culled from thousands submitted to help launch the next Plan of Chicago. It’s happening, folks!

Water in Your Pizza? Think Again

Want to see a group of 5th graders perk up? Give them a colored handout with information about virtual water, i.e., the amount of water it takes to produce various products and foods.

Did you know, for instance, that it takes 49 gallons of water to produce one 7 oz bag of potato chips?

Virtual water is the amount of water that is embedded in food or other products needed for their production. For example, it takes 11 gallons of water to produce one slice of toast; 190 gallons of water to produce one bottle of wine; 13 gallons of water for one orange; and 18 gallons for an apple.

Debra at Francis Xavier Warde
Photo: Alfred and Christopher Saucedo

Debra at Francis Xavier Warde

Photo: Alfred and Christopher Saucedo

“How come it takes 333 gallons of water for a pizza?” asked one of the students from Francis Xavier Warde School when I visited with them in October.

“It takes water to grow the wheat for the flour, to grow grass for the dairy cow to produce milk for the cheese, to grow the tomatoes, to process these into tomato sauce and mozzarella, to transport them to the store or restaurant,” I answered. They were entranced. One of the math teachers was inspired to use these examples to create new problems for her class.

See how much water is used for other products

With food exports and many other commodities, there is a virtual flow of water from producing countries to countries that import and consume those commodities. A water-scarce country, such as Australia, can import products that require a lot of water for their production rather than producing them domestically. By doing so, it allows real water savings, relieving the pressure on its water resources or making water available for other purposes.

At the global level, virtual water trade has geopolitical implications: it induces dependencies between countries. Therefore, it can be regarded either as a stimulant for cooperation and peace or as a reason for potential conflict.


Food Waste No More

In the U.S., we waste an average of 20 pounds of food per person each month. That’s 189,000 TONS of food a year from Cook County alone. And wasting food is wasting water and energy and phosphorus — all valuable resources we’re just throwing away.

What’s to be done? First, waste less food. Sounds simplistic, I know, but we need to shop more wisely, and cook and eat all the food we buy. But there will still be vegetable trimmings, banana peels, coffee grounds, and other food scraps to dispose of. With those, the best approach is to compost food waste in a compost pile or bin. The resulting material from composted food and yard waste becomes a rich soil amendment and fertilizer.

If you can’t compost food waste, the next best thing is to use a garbage disposal. Surprised? Putting food scraps down a garbage disposal is better for the environment than throwing them out in the trash. Here’s why.

Food waste is up to 30 percent of the garbage collected in cities. That’s a lot of weight to be trucked to landfills and a big cost to municipalities.

When organic matter decomposes in landfills, it produces methane gas, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (21 times the global warming potential of CO2). Landfills have methods to capture this methane gas, but they are not nearly as efficient as wastewater treatment plants. When food scraps are sent via the waste stream to wastewater plants, the methane generated by decomposition of organic matter in the anaerobic digesters can be captured and converted to natural gas, electricity, or biofuel — renewable energy!

A 2011 study reported that if 30,000 households switched from disposing of food waste in a landfill to using a garbage disposal, the reduction in global warming potential would be equivalent to a savings of 4.6 million miles driven in the average American car or “100 community members going carbon neutral for a year.” Think of what that might mean if all 1.9 million households in Cook County had — and used — garbage disposals!

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan Reversal, June 30–July 1

Due to a big storm beginning late on June 30, the Wilmette gates opened at 11:23 p.m. and closed at 5:30 a.m. on July 1. 163 million gallons of water were released into the lake there.

The Chicago River Controlling Works (CRCW) near Navy Pier opened at 12:58 a.m. on July 1 and closed at 7:10 a.m. the same day. 362 million gallons of water were released into the lake at this site.

Between the Wilmette gates and the CRCW, a total of 525 million gallons of water were released into Lake Michigan due to the June 30–July 1 storm. The O’Brien locks remained closed.

Water Levels Way Up in Lake Michigan

You may recall that Lake Michigan reached its all-time historic low level on January 1, 2013: 576.02 feet. Docks were rendered unusable; sandbars appeared; shipping loads had to be reduced. By December 30, 2014, due to significant rainfall and ice cover that reduced evaporation, the lake level had risen more than three feet to 579.22 feet.

How much more water is that? One inch of water across the expanse of Lake Michigan equals 390 billion gallons. Thus, the increase in the level of the lake amounts to 14,976,000,000,000 (yes, that’s trillion) gallons. That amount of water would cover Cook County in a lake 78 feet deep.

Read more about the rising water levels in the Great Lakes

Imagine 78 feet of water covering Cook County!

Imagine 78 feet of water covering Cook County!


New MWRD App

Calling all watchdogs! Ever notice a stinky odor when cycling past a Deep Tunnel dropshaft or see dead fish floating in the Chicago River? Now you can report them directly from your smartphone via the District’s new “Citizen Incident Reporting” app. It’s free from the iTunes App Store. You can upload pictures, receive email notifications, and monitor the status of your reports. Thanks for your help!


In November, I was one of 15 people and organizations inducted into Chicago’s Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame, citing my 32 years as a conservationist and political organizer.

Debra inducted into Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame

Debra inducted into Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame

Last year, I was also chosen as one of 17 Global Justice Fellows in Chicago by the American Jewish World Service. This selective, year–long program was designed to inspire, educate, and train key opinion leaders in the American Jewish community to become activists in support of global justice.

In May we spent a week in the Dominican Republic visiting with local grassroots organizations working to end violence against women and girls, fighting to restore the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent, and to promote LGBT rights.