2017 Annual Report

What will historians say about 2017? A year with almost biblical floods, droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes? A year when the magnitude of property damage — $306 billion in the US and rising — pales beside the magnitude of damage to our democratic norms and institutions? I merely ask. Cook County had the wettest October in 63 years, severe flooding, and an extended stretch of 90°+ days. Weather weirding? The new normal? Or will historians see it as an example of an “objective correlative” — the literary term for situations in which the storms occurring outside mirror the mood inside?

My Phosphorus for Your Clean Water?

Nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen are life’s building blocks: essential to grow food on land but problematic in waterways. Why? They cause algae to grow, which consume oxygen when they decompose — leaving none for aquatic life — and sometimes contain toxic bacteria. As a result, wastewater agencies face increasingly stringent limits on the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that can be discharged from treatment plants.

Here’s the reality: stormwater and agricultural runoff are by far the largest sources of nutrient loading, carrying nutrient-dense materials like fertilizer, pet poop, and manure directly from lawns and farms into nearby waterways. With no way of knowing exactly where these nutrients come from and who should be held responsible, stormwater runoff isn’t regulated under the Clean Water Act. That makes easily identified “point-source” polluters, such as wastewater treatment plants, the go-to targets for regulation, even if they aren’t the primary culprits.

BufferCrops_greyscale-resized.jpgAccording to the USEPA, Illinois must reduce its total nitrogen and phosphorus pollution 45 percent below 1980s-levels by 2035. Installing technology at District plants to achieve the necessary concentrations of phosphorus in effluent — around one milligram per liter — could cost taxpayers a whopping $211 million per year. That’s a lot of money to solve a problem created largely by others.

What if, instead, a “nutrient trading” program developed, allowing the District to receive credit for reducing nutrient loading by installing runoff-absorbing projects like constructed wetlands and buffer crops along farmlands? MWRD staff did the math and determined that a nutrient trading strategy could allow the agency to achieve its goals for approximately $20 million per year. The numbers spoke for themselves. Subsequently the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill (H.B. 659) that allows the District to engage in nutrient trading whenever a program is established. Cleaner waters for a fraction of the cost? I’m sold.

The Big Jump

Debra with MWRD Executive Director David St. Pierre, Commissioner Josina Morita, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and Friends of the Chicago River Executive Director Margaret Frisbie
When: September 16, 2017, 9 a.m.
Place: Ping Tom Park boat dock along the South Branch
Weather: Sunny and warm

Debra with MWRD Executive Director David St. Pierre, Commissioner Josina Morita, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and Friends of the Chicago River Executive Director Margaret Frisbie

When: September 16, 2017, 9 a.m.

Place: Ping Tom Park boat dock along the South Branch

Weather: Sunny and warm

If you needed further evidence of improved water quality in the Chicago River — or of the collective bravery of many of your dedicated public servants — you should have been at The Big Jump on September 16.

“We took the ‘Big Jump’ in the Chicago River to highlight the work that has been done over the last few decades to clean up the Chicago River,” said Jump organizer and MWRD Commissioner Josina Morita. “We had 15 elected officials jump, from every level of government as well as key agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency. All of them made a commitment to doing their part — from Deep Tunnel funding to Clean Water Act enforcement — to make the river swimmable for everyone some day.”

Scientists from Argonne National Laboratory are studying the bacteria in the Chicago waterways to find out whether they come from treated effluent from wastewater treatment plants, land-based stormwater runoff, combined sewer overflows, stirred-up sediment, storm drains, or perhaps animals such as geese, deer, cats, birds, and beavers. The early results indicate that Chicago area waterways have healthy and diverse microbial communities. By sequencing the genes of bacteria from the rivers, researchers found that genes from the E. coli present in the samples were predominantly non-virulent. In a nutshell, disinfection at the O’Brien and Calumet treatment plants is working to reduce harmful bacteria in the waterways. I can testify. I jumped too!

Flood Control = A More Vibrant Robbins

MWRD has had a substantial role in managing stormwater and protecting Cook County residents from flooding for years. Since the mid-1960s, billions of dollars have been spent on the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), flood control storage reservoirs, detailed watershed plans, and dozens of stormwater-management projects at the local and regional levels. These projects did what they were designed to do — help control stormwater — but they generally tended to be single-purpose in nature.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But what if we could spend money on stormwater management, and in return get an entire range of benefits in addition to flood control: economic development, recreational facilities, clean energy, and new affordable housing stock?

That’s precisely what the District is attempting to do with an ambitious and exciting new project in the southwest Cook County community of Robbins. Like many other communities, Robbins faces chronic stormwater-management problems. When MWRD and its consultant, Donohue & Associates, investigated ways to deal with those problems, they found that traditional engineering approaches would be very expensive and would only meet some of the community’s needs. Residents wanted the District to solve the flooding problem, of course, but they also wanted to attract new residents. They wanted more affordable housing and retail opportunities; they wanted more and better recreational facilities; and they needed more jobs and economic development. Noticing that Robbins also had substantial resources that were underutilized — including large tracts of vacant land and close proximity to important transit and transportation assets — the MWRD team wondered if there wasn’t a way to use stormwater-management dollars to leverage other partnerships and funding sources to do more.

Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & MerrillThe result was the Robbins Vision. The District describes it as “a green-blue stormwater solution for Robbins that includes wetlands, lakes, parks, and playfields.” Instead of a single-purpose flood control reservoir, Robbins will get a lake and wetlands to help control flooding and contribute to the village’s long-term resilience. It will also get new parks, ball fields, and other recreational spaces; housing and retail development positioned to take maximum advantage of Robbins’s Metra stop; and infrastructure improvements that can act as a catalyst for a budding resource recovery and clean energy industry.

This is a new way of looking at how we spend dollars on stormwater management, and it has attracted the attention of other communities in the region and across the country. And it’s already winning prizes. The Robbins Vision was co-selected as winner in the Strategic Plan category of the 2017 American Planning Association (Illinois Chapter) awards.

Proposed Robbins Vision near the Cal-Sag Channel
Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merril

Proposed Robbins Vision near the Cal-Sag Channel

Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merril

Another Reservoir into Service

One of the hallmarks of the 20th century was the emergence of an environmental consciousness — the recognition that Planet Earth, our common home, is not endlessly resilient, that pollution from human enterprise harms the natural world and us, and that we can make amends. In the US, the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other environmental laws in the early 1970s were attempts to do just that: protect our environment from future degradation and clean up the mess we’d made.

An aerial view of McCook Reservoir
Photo: Dan Wendt

An aerial view of McCook Reservoir

Photo: Dan Wendt

In Cook County, bold engineers at the Metropolitan Sanitary District designed the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (aka “Deep Tunnel”) in the late 1960s to protect Lake Michigan from sewage discharges, to improve water quality in the Chicago waterways, and to reduce flooding. TARP included 109 miles of tunnel in four sections to capture 2.3 billion gallons of stormwater overflows, and three reservoirs to capture overflows from Chicago and 56 suburbs whose sewers capture both stormwater and wastewater — combined sewers designed, when full, to dump overflows directly into nearby rivers and streams. Happily, all these years later, we are nearly done!

The tunnels were completed in 2006 and have captured many billions of gallons of stormwater since. The Majewski Reservoir, near O’Hare Airport, can hold 325 million gallons and has been in operation since 1998. The Thornton Reservoir, a repurposed limestone quarry visible from I-80, went online in late 2015 and can hold up to 7.9 billion gallons of stormwater.

McCook Reservoir ribbon cutting ceremony

McCook Reservoir ribbon cutting ceremony

And — drum roll, please — the first lobe of the McCook Reservoir, just off I-55 between the Des Plaines River and the Sanitary and Ship Canal, was dedicated in early December 2017. Water from the Mainstream Tunnel poured in for the first time on January 11, 2018. This first stage of the reservoir can hold up to 3.5 billion gallons of water and will protect 3.1 million residents in Chicago and 36 suburbs from flooding, providing $114 million annually in flood reduction benefits.

When completed in 2029, the final stage of McCook will hold an additional 6.5 billion gallons for a total of 10 billion gallons, making it the largest stormwater reservoir in the world. Since the Thornton Reservoir went online in late 2015, combined sewer overflows have been nearly eliminated in the Calumet system. This was the hope all along.

Where once no fish existed in the Chicago River due to pollution, now 70 species have been recorded. Recreation on the river, river-related tourism, riverside restaurants, and development are all booming.

Commissioners Shore, McGowan & Steele at McCook
Photo: Dan Wendt

Commissioners Shore, McGowan & Steele at McCook

Photo: Dan Wendt

Training the Next Generation of Plumbers

In September, Chicago Plumbers Local 130 opened a new 50,000 square foot state-of-the-art training facility that promotes water conservation and green building technology. Upon entry, visitors see the building’s harvesting system for rainwater reuse. A 10,000-gallon underground cistern stores runoff from the roof where it can then be pumped through filters and stored in a 3,500-gallon tank. The stored water is used to flush toilets and enhance classroom instruction. Water from drinking fountains, showers, and wash sinks flows through several filtration devices and ultraviolet disinfection before being used to irrigate outdoor plantings. Solar panels on the roof heat water for the building, and a monitor in the main lobby tracks water consumption and savings.

“We wanted to make everything visible, educational, and innovative,” said Jim Majerowicz, Training Director for Plumbers JAC Local 130. “Our building isn’t just beautiful, it’s also practical and flexible for the future,” said Jim Coyne, Local 130’s Business Manager and key project driver. “Reuse of greywater, harvesting rainwater, and more efficient fixtures are how plumbers can do our part to address climate change.”

The Plumbers Joint Apprenticeship Committee training center expects to serve Local 130’s 4,000 journeymen and apprentice plumbers.

Rainwater harvesting system
Courtesy of Local 130

Rainwater harvesting system

Courtesy of Local 130

Multi-Project Labor Agreement Updates

Debra Celebrates at 10th Ward Labor Day ParadeThe District builds some of the largest, most complex projects in the entire world, making use of an enormous amount of skilled labor. At one time or another, MWRD and its contractors employ workers from nearly every trade represented on the Chicago and Cook County Building Trades Council, and most large District projects involve workers from a variety of different trades. For decades, the District used a multi-project labor agreement (MPLA) — an agreement between MWRD and the Building Trades Council that sets the conditions for work on District projects — to ensure that projects are not interrupted by strikes or other work stoppages, and to provide for the orderly and equitable resolution of any labor issues that may arise.

Anti-union lobbyists criticize project labor agreements, but a 2010 Congressional Research Service report suggests that these critiques are not supported by conclusive, reliable, empirical evidence. In 2017, with the leadership of Commissioner Marty Durkan, the MWRD Board updated the District’s MPLA — closing a loophole that protected contractors who failed to make required contributions to workers’ health and retirement funds, and incorporating ambitious goals for improving the representation of minorities and women in the hiring process. The new updates ensure that MWRD projects get the benefit of the highest quality work at the lowest responsible cost, and bring the District’s MPLA into line with those of other local government agencies such as the City of Chicago and Cook County.

“Improvements to the District’s MPLA mean that tradesmen and women have safe working conditions, taxpayers are protected from abuse of less stringent standards, and members of underrepresented groups have a better shot at good union jobs,” said Jorge Ramirez, President of the Chicago Federation of Labor, which represents the various building trades that work on the MWRD construction projects as well as the other rank and file union members of the District. “I commend the MWRD’s Board of Commissioners for their strong leadership on this important issue.”

On the Waterfront

Water Photographer

Temkin---O'Brien-Plant-Plow---Chicago-IL--2016_RGB.jpgTemkin---McCook-West-Bull-Nose---Chicago-IL---2016_RGB.jpgBrad Temkin, a Skokie resident and photographer, won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for a project titled “The State of Water” during which he plans to photograph water and wastewater infrastructure in Chicago and other cities. “I hope to show the transformative beauty in all states of water from sludge to pure,” Temkin wrote in his application, “and advocate for our need to conserve and reclaim our most valuable resource.” Two of Brad Temkin’s photographs are shown to the right. Watch for an exhibit at the Field Museum in 2019, and a book!

Biosolids

The District sold 138 tons of composted biosolids in 2017 (and gave away an additional 2,010 tons for free) — a first! By mixing biosolids with wood chips from the City of Chicago’s forestry department, the District produced a high-quality compost that can be used as a soil amendment or conditioner for establishing turfgrass, for mixing into custom topsoil blends, or in planter beds and pots for establishing flowers and trees in nurseries. Recycling at its best!

Pharmaceutical Disposal

Since Cook County’s new Safe Pharmaceutical Disposal Ordinance took effect in January 2017, the Sheriff’s Office began collecting from more than 80 receptacles countywide and reports destroying 10,300 pounds of unused and expired medications. I hope the Sheriff will expand collection sites to hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies in 2018 and develop a program to reach homebound residents. MWRD, which collected 446.8 pounds in 2017 at its headquarters and three of its treatment plants, has continued its support of this program with a $100,000 commitment. To find a collection site near you, visit CookCountySheriff.org/prescription.

Paris, je t’aime

I have long thought that leadership on climate change must come at the city, county, state, and regional levels. That’s why when President Trump said he would withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement — an international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—I decided that the MWRD should assert its own leadership and pledge to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The resolution I sponsored in July was adopted unanimously and said, among other things, that MWRD resolved to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent below the District’s 2005 levels by 2025.

Instead, a recent audit shows the District has already reduced its carbon footprint by 27 percent from 2005. The planned 2018 decommissioning of Imhoff tanks at the Stickney treatment plant — used for an outdated process for treating sewage that results in high methane emissions — means that the District will soon achieve a 50 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions. Other examples of energy inefficiency in District operations include indirect emissions from electricity use, direct stationary combustion of natural gas, vehicle use, methane emissions from biogas combustion, and nitrous oxide emissions from wastewater treatment and plant effluent discharge into receiving waters. However, offsetting some of these emissions, the District receives credits for carbon capture from tree-covered land owned by MWRD, land-applied biosolids, and native prairie plantings. Don’t worry. We won’t let the District rest on its carbon-capturing laurels. We pledge to do more.

Left: Biologist Brittany Hanrahan at March for Science
Right: Truth teller at March for Science

Left: Biologist Brittany Hanrahan at March for Science

Right: Truth teller at March for Science

Sometimes You Just Have to Say No

Canals once dug to convey sewage and stormwater away from Lake Michigan, including the eight-mile-long North Shore Channel, have become vital corridors for commerce, venues for recreation, and habitats for wildlife. Visit the Dammrich Rowing Center in Skokie on race day and you will find the parking lot overflowing (with cars). Play a round of golf at the Canal Shores course along the channel or pedal on the bike path and you’ll appreciate the verdant oasis in the midst of bustling suburbs. The value of open space is one reason the Board of Commissioners adopted a policy some years ago stating that land along the North Shore Channel from Devon Avenue north to Wilmette Harbor should remain as parkland or open space. It’s a popular — and important — policy.

IsabellaWoods_greyscale.jpg

Last year, however, the owner of a parcel of land bordering the Evanston-Wilmette Community Golf Course, which is on District land currently leased to the Wilmette Park District and the City of Evanston, sought an easement to build a road to access his property. He wanted to sell his land to a developer who planned to build between two and four houses, but he had no road access to his property, which was bounded by CTA tracks on the west, private homes on the north, and MWRD land on the east and south. Since neither the Wilmette Park District nor the City of Evanston granted permission for an easement, the Cook County Highway Department — which owns no roads in Evanston — then requested an easement from MWRD. Hundreds of residents from Wilmette, Evanston, and Chicago rallied on behalf of this wet and brush-choked parcel they named Isabella Woods. Towering old oaks provide habitat for many species of birds. The undeveloped parcel held soggy pools of rainwater.

The MWRD Board listened — and voted unanimously to deny the easement request. The habitat and stormwater benefits were too important to pave over. No road through Isabella Woods.

Appointing an Inspector General

For decades, inspectors general (IGs) — public officials specifically tasked with oversight—have been a common fixture in the federal government, and in state and local governments across the country. (Here in the Chicago region, many of MWRD’s sister agencies have IGs, including the City of Chicago, Cook County, the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Housing Authority. So does the State of Illinois.) I have long advocated for the appointment of an IG at MWRD not because I think that the District is a hotbed of fraud, waste, and abuse, but rather because any agency with thousands of employees and a billion-dollar budget should have the benefit of independent oversight. It’s considered a “best practice” in government. Just as importantly, I believe that an IG can help the District fine-tune its programs, policies, and practices to serve the residents of Cook County more effectively.

Source: John Hudak and Grace Wallack, Center for Effective Public Mangement (Brookings Institution), 2015

Source: John Hudak and Grace Wallack, Center for Effective Public Mangement (Brookings Institution), 2015

In 2017, the MWRD Board of Commissioners began to consider the possibility of establishing an independent IG at MWRD, and early signs are encouraging. In April, Board President Mariyana Spyropoulos directed the District’s executive director to prepare a staff memo on the topic. In August, the Board of Commissioners held a study session to discuss the issue at length. Finally, in December, I secured a $600,000 placeholder in the 2018 budget to fund an Office of the Inspector General, should the Board decide to appoint one.

Same-Sex Spousal Retirement Benefits

Back in 2007, during the first year of my first term as a member of the Board of Commissioners, I learned that MWRD did not offer health benefits to the registered domestic partners of District employees. When I inquired about the rationale for this policy, I was told, “No one asked.” So I asked, and after a review of the issue by the District’s Human Resources Department, the Board of Commissioners extended health benefits to the domestic partners of District employees. Three same-sex couples — and seven opposite-sex couples — applied to receive benefits during the following enrollment period.

A lot of things have changed since then. The State of Illinois passed laws establishing civil unions and recognizing same-sex marriage in 2011 and 2013, respectively, and the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to marriage for all Americans in its Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015. So I was surprised to learn that same-sex spouses of District employees who retired before the 2013 Illinois marriage equality law went into effect — even those in civil unions at the time of retirement — were ineligible to receive survivors’ benefits simply because they had not been married when they retired.

This struck me as unfair — and probably unconstitutional — so I asked my colleagues on the Board and the trustees of the MWRD Retirement Fund to support a change to state law to protect the rights of the affected retirees. H.B. 164 (known in my office as the MWRD Pension Fairness Bill), sponsored by State Representative Gregory Harris and State Senator Iris Martinez, passed the Illinois General Assembly with overwhelming majorities. Governor Rauner signed the bill on August 22, 2017. Isn’t it remarkable what can happen, sometimes, if you just ask?

Pedal Pushers

For more than 25 years, the Active Transportation Alliance has sponsored the Bike Commuter Challenge — an annual event in which hundreds of organizations (including businesses, not-for-profit organizations, government agencies, and schools) compete to see who can rack up the most bicycle commuting miles. In 2017, the MWRD employee team finished first among public agencies, and fourth overall, with over 4,000 commuting miles and 61 participants — an outstanding finish for the Chicago region’s leading environmental agency. The Board passed a resolution honoring Team MWRD — and my staff and I pledged to participate in the 2018 Bike Commuter Challenge. Look for us panting and pedaling between June 15 and June 30!

MWRD employees take on bike commuter challenge

MWRD employees take on bike commuter challenge

What I’m Reading and Writing

In 2017, I was fortunate to have two works published — the preface to Chicago’s Fabulous Fountains (a fascinating new book by Greg Borzo with photos by Julia Thiel, published by Southern Illinois University Press) and a peer-reviewed article titled “From Waste Treatment to Resource Recovery: A Chicago Sustainability Story” in MRS Energy & Sustainability: A Review Journal.

Books to Read

bookcover_RGB.jpgThe Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan
A well-researched and well-written story about invasive species, fishing, and ecosystem survival by the premier Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.

The Tunnel Under the Lake: The Engineering Marvel That Saved Chicago by Benjamin Sells
The cribs visible from the lakefront? This is the story of their construction — and the two-mile tunnel under the lake — to convey clean water to the city. Written by a sailor, writer, and village president of Riverside, IL.