2010 Annual Report

When I became a Commissioner, I started to feel differently about rain. I still regard it as a gift from the heavens, the only natural resource delivered free of charge to our doorsteps, but now I worry about flooding, basement backups, and contaminated runoff. And 2010 gave me plenty of reason to worry. The historic storms of late July dumped up to seven inches of rain on Cook County — more than 115 billion gallons — affecting hundreds of thousands of residents and causing more than $310 million in damages. That was the second such massive storm in as many years.

As our climate continues to change, we can expect more intense rain storms. We must do a better job of peeling back some of the impervious surface we've laid over our landscape (accounting for approximately 42 percent of our 946 square miles), and finding ways to treat rain as an asset, not as a liability.

It's Your Money

When I was growing up, my Dad would put cash from his paycheck into a series of envelopes in his desk drawer labeled "Grocery," "Gas & Auto," "Clothing," and "Misc." for my mother to use. I suppose they would haggle things out if there weren't enough cash in the envelopes.

The three biggest envelopes in the MWRD budget are labeled Salaries, Health Care, and Energy (Gas & Electric). Unfortunately, as we learned in mid-2010, the amount of cash available for those envelopes was insufficient to meet the rising cost of these obligations.

In many respects, the MWRD is among the best-managed and most financially healthy government agencies in Illinois. The District retains three AAA bond ratings. It established a trust for Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) and has funded it with $50 million as of January 2011. No District employees have been let go for budgetary reasons; nor have any been compelled to take furlough days. The Civic Federation routinely gives the MWRD high marks on the transparency of its budget, and its unfunded pension obligation is far better than most other government bodies.

Still, as District staff began developing the 2011 budget in mid-2010, we were looking at a revenue shortfall of approximately $26 to $37 million, a substantial bite in an operating budget of $341.1 million. Clearly we would have to make hard choices, such as deferring maintenance, raising employees' health insurance deductible, forgoing planned payments to the OPEB trust, or denying cost-of-living adjustments to non-represented employees. (Of the District's 2,071 employees, approximately 850 are represented by unions and thus have salaries and benefits locked into a three-year contract.)

Rather than lay off employees, the District has reduced its staff through attrition (identifying positions that would not be filled when an employee leaves). As a result, the District has 45 fewer employees than last year.

District staff presented a range of options to the Board of Commissioners to address the anticipated revenue shortfall. Some items were modest but important, other options generated greater savings, but also placed a greater burden on employees.

Pay Statements

  • Change: Eliminating the mailing of paper pay statements to non-represented employees
  • Approx. Savings: $64,000/yr

Parade Float

  • Change: Cancel District's participation in parades for the next year
  • Approx. Savings: $25,000/yr for each year the float is not in use

Non-Represented Employee Tuition Benefits

  • Change: Reduced value of benefit
  • Approx. Savings: $110,000/yr

Vehicle Fleet

  • Change: Reduced number of vehicles
  • Approx. Savings: $667,000/yr

Non-Represented Employee Health Insurance

  • Change: Raised deductible and contribution
  • Approx. Savings: $334,000/yr

Non-Represented Termination Pay *

  • Change: Eliminated retroactively and proactively
  • Approx. Savings: $500,000/yr

By early December we had balanced our budget, but not without significant disruptions to staff and morale. Our decision to eliminate or reduce several employee benefits prompted more than 75 employees to retire between November 15 and December 31, including our Executive Director, General Counsel, Treasurer, Acting General Counsel, and Director of Monitoring & Research. In addition, a number of employees sued the District maintaining that they were entitled to some of these benefits as a form of deferred compensation.

Unfortunately, the forecast for 2012 includes additional revenue shortfalls, and we've already harvested most of the low-hanging fruit!

*Termination pay was a benefit entitling MWRD employees to five days pay if they left after five or more years of service, with a maximum of 30 days pay after 20 years of service. It had been part of the benefits package for more than 40 years; we eliminated it as of December 31, 2010.

Read more about the MWRD sources of support

To Serve and Protect

There's no question that Chicago Police officers need annual firearms practice at an outdoor range to train in the wide variety of conditions in which they must work. In order to provide their officers with such a space, the Police Department picked an isolated 33-acre parcel of MWRD land at 134th St. and Torrence Ave. on Chicago's far south side as the site to build a new state-of-the-art outdoor range.

In some respects, the MWRD site is an ideal location — bordered on two sides by towering landfill and more than a mile from the nearest residential development. But it also happens to be next to Whitford Pond, where great blue herons and other marshland birds may nest, including the Yellow-Headed Blackbird and the Black-Crowned Night-Heron. This site is also immediately across the Calumet River from Hegewisch Marsh, where the City of Chicago plans to build the Ford Calumet Environmental Center, with numerous trails to guide thousands of schoolchildren and families for a rare experience of nature in an urban setting. 

Sounds of the Shooting Range

The Police Department sought a 39-year lease of the parcel from the MWRD for $10 a year (plus free training for MWRD police officers at the range and at the police academy). My colleagues and I insisted that the Police Dept. hold a public meeting to inform neighboring communities about their plans and pressed for noise studies assessing the effect of the firing range not only on the closest residential communities, but also on the nearby natural areas. These noise studies showed that people using the trails in Hegewisch Marsh — and wildlife that make these places home — would likely hear a perceptible level of noise from the shooting range across the river. From 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.

Wildlife Survey Needed

I voted against the request because I felt the site selection process was flawed. Moreover, I agreed with Commissioner Frank Avila, who also opposed the lease, that a wildlife survey should have been conducted. The MWRD Board of Commissioners supported proceeding with the lease, but we learned in March that the Police Department may be re-evaluating the proposal.

Download map of the proposed shooting range site

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It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

How Asian Carp Became the Latest Menace Threatening the Health of the Great Lakes

I first learned about invasive species roughly 20 years ago when I began volunteering to restore oak woods and prairies in the Cook County Forest Preserves. The principal activity of ecological restoration, it turns out, is removing shrubs and plants that have invaded our ecosystems and are crowding out the native plants (and, thus, many of the animals and insects that depend on those plants). Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), for instance, was brought to North America from Europe in the 1800s as an ornamental shrub for use in hedgerows. It's superb for hedges — producing leaves earlier in the spring and holding onto them later in the fall than most other plants. Birds eat the berries, which act as a potent laxative (hence the Latin name cathartica), and disperse the seeds widely. In the absence of fires, which used to sweep across our landscape, these buckthorn shrubs have invaded our woods, eroding the soil, shading out spring flowers, and inhibiting reproduction of oaks and other sun-loving trees. Buckthorns have become a major threat to the health of our woods.

Asian carp jumping (Copyright © JasonLindsey.com)

Asian carp jumping (Copyright © JasonLindsey.com)

Similarly, bighead and silver carp — collectively referred to as Asian carp — were originally imported to the southern United States from China in the early 1970s for evaluation as plankton control organisms in aquaculture ponds and wastewater treatment lagoons. Due in part to flooding and in part to a lack of concern and lax controls, they escaped shortly thereafter into the lower Mississippi River system. Over the last four decades, they have spread across most of the Mississippi Basin.

Along the way, Asian carp have significantly altered their new ecosystems: voracious filter-feeders and fecund breeders, these species have thrived in the United States, frequently at the expense of native species with which they compete for food. The August 2009 discovery of Asian carp DNA (traces of DNA detected in water samples are called environmental DNA, or eDNA) in the Lower Des Plaines River — approximately 1,460 miles from the Gulf of Mexico — ignited fears that these invasive fishes will migrate through the Chicago Area Waterway System into the Great Lakes, where they could devastate already impaired ecosystems and economically valuable fisheries.

Fierce debate has surrounded the question of how best to respond to this threat, with conservationists and several Great Lakes states calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and the MWRD to take drastic measures. Representatives of the barge and tour boat industries, however, have argued against any steps that might impede their operations. The following timeline summarizes the major scientific and political developments of the last 19 months. Let us hope — no, let us pray — that these will prove to have been 19 productive months, rather than the prelude to an ecological catastrophe.

2009

  • August: Oh No! Asian carp eDNA is detected for the first time above the Brandon Road Lock and Dam, only 10 miles downstream of the electric barrier.Photo: USACE/Jessica Vandrick
  • September: Here they come... Asian carp eDNA is detected in the Des Plaines River and the Illinois and Michigan Canal, parallel to the CSSC and upstream of the electric barriers. USACE considers constructing barriers to prevent Asian carp from passing into the CSSC during flood events that connect the waterways.
  • November: Beyond the barrier — Asian carp eDNA is detected in the Cal-Sag Channel, upstream of the electric barrier.
  • December: Killing fish to save the lake — IDNR poisons a six-mile stretch of the CSSC near the electric barrier while it is shut down for regular maintenance. One Asian carp is recovered downstream of the barrier, but experts suspect that others are killed but not recovered. Michigan files a suit in the U.S. Supreme Court requesting an immediate closure of the locks as well as measures to permanently separate the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds as soon as possible.

2010

  • January: Strike one... The U.S. Supreme Court rejects Michigan’s request for a preliminary injunction to force lock closures and other actions by Illinois, USACE, and the MWRD to prevent the movement of Asian carp into Lake Michigan. The same day, USACE announced that Asian carp eDNA had been found in Lake Michigan’s Calumet Harbor.Copyright © Gary Martin
  • February: Everything but the kitchen sink — The federal government releases a $78.5 million Asian carp plan, comprising both short- and long-term strategies, including electric barrier construction, eDNA monitoring, and research into new control methods and ecological separation. Immediate lock closures are not considered. Michigan renews its motion for preliminary injunction with the Supreme Court.
  • March: Strike two... The Supreme Court again rejects Michigan's request for a preliminary injunction to close the locks between the Chicago Area Waterway System and Lake Michigan.
  • April: And...strike three — The Supreme Court refuses to consider Michigan's request to force USACE to create a permanent physical barrier between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basins. This leaves USACE with the decision to separate the watersheds or not. They are expected to report their study of the issue in 2012.
  • May: More poison, but no carp — hoping to confirm or deny positive detections of Asian carp eDNA above the electric barrier, fisheries crews from USFWS and IDNR poison a two-mile stretch of the Little Calumet River. No Asian carp are recovered, but experts insist that this result is neither unexpected nor proof that no Asian carp have breached the barrier.Photo: S.E.B.
  • June: Live carp found! A live bighead carp is netted in Lake Calumet, upstream of both the electric barrier and the O'Brien Lock and Dam. USACE concluded that intermittent lock closures would have no meaningful impact on Asian carp, but recommends installing screens over the sluice gates at the O'Brien, Chicago, and Wilmette control structures.
  • July: Ship 'em to China — Hoping to reduce invasion pressure on Lake Michigan, Illinois offers $2 million to help commercial fishers harvest 30 million pounds of Asian carp from the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers for sale in China. Michigan takes its request for immediate lock closures to federal district court. They also ask that USACE be directed to expedite its study of measures to permanently separate the CAWS from Lake Michigan.
  • September: Introducing the carp czar — The White House names John Goss of the Indiana Wildlife Federation as its Asian Carp Director.Photo: Illinois Department of Natural Resources
  • December: Can slow and steady win the race? Michigan announces its intent to appeal after its third lawsuit is rejected by the Supreme Court. USACE releases a plan for its watershed separation study. To the ire of conservationists, the plan suggested that measures short of physical separation may be considered and pushes the due date back from 2012 to 2015.

2011

  • January: Validation, but small comfort — Asian carp eDNA results are published for the first time in a peer-reviewed journal, Conservation Letters. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative and the Great Lakes Commission begin a study of ecological separation measures. The study will parallel USACE's, but will be complete in January 2012, far ahead of the USACE study.
  • February: USHOUSElogo.jpgDefeated again — The U.S. House of Representatives votes against a bill that would force the closure of Chicago area shipping locks, preventing Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan. With bipartisan backing, major supporters plan to reintroduce the legislation within the following months.

Download PDF of complete Asian carp timeline

Stay updated on the Midwestern Asian Carp invasion

The Dilemma of Disinfection

When the Chicago River was treated like an open sewer by the stockyards, heavy industry, and the residents of Chicago, a canoeist on the river would certainly have elicited a double-take. Today, few think twice about seeing a kayaker, rowing team, or angler on the river — a remarkable turnaround in the river's fortunes and aspect, in large part due to the efforts of the MWRD. But is the river clean enough? That is the question the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) is attempting to answer. 

The IPCB, the state agency charged with issuing pollution regulations, began conducting hearings in 2007 to decide whether to require the MWRD to disinfect its wastewater effluent at its three largest wastewater treatment plants — Stickney, Calumet, and North Side — and whether to adopt other proposed standards that would improve water quality. I've been following this issue closely because of its implications for the environment, the District's budget, and the region's image.

In early August 2010, the IPCB issued rules designating different reaches of the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) for different types of recreation. According to this ruling, water quality in most of the CAWS must be suitable for incidental contact recreation. That is, the Chicago River and its branches, the Calumet, Grand Calumet, and Little Calumet Rivers, the Cal-Sag Channel, and parts of the upper Sanitary and Ship Canal and Lower Des Plaines River should be kept safe for kayakers, canoeists, rowers, fishers, and motor-boaters.

Only a small, heavily industrialized stretch of the Sanitary and Ship Canal and Lower Des Plaines River was ruled to be unsafe for recreation.

The IPCB's next decision will be whether disinfection of MWRD effluent is necessary to protect recreators on the CAWS. In August, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago released their final report on the Chicago Health and Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS). This study, sponsored by the MWRD at a cost of more than $8 million, sought first to measure the risk of illness faced by kayakers, canoeists, fishers, and other recreators on the CAWS. It then compared this risk to the risk faced by recreators on general use waters (such as Lake Michigan, the Skokie Lagoons, and the Fox River) and by non-water recreators.

Download map of IEPA-proposed Chicago river designation zones

The CHEERS final report concluded that recreating on the region's waterways carries a risk of acute gastrointestinal illness not faced by non-water recreators like joggers and bikers. For every 1,000 recreators, approximately 12 or 13 cases of acute gastrointestinal illness could be attributed to recreating on the water.

But the study also found that it doesn't seem to matter whether you recreate on the CAWS or elsewhere in the region: recreators on the CAWS and on general use waters were equally likely to become sick to their stomachs. However, CAWS recreators were more likely than those recreating on general use waters and non-water recreators to develop eye symptoms — nearly 16 more cases per 1,000 recreators as compared to non-water recreators, and 11 additional cases as compared to general use water recreators.

Photo: Tom GillIn hearings on the study, District representatives emphasized that recreators on general use waters, which do not receive undisinfected wastewater effluent, were just as likely to develop acute gastrointestinal illness as were recreators on the CAWS, where undisinfected effluent typically constitutes more than 70 percent of the total flow. This similarity, they argued, suggests that disinfection would provide little or no public health benefit. The MWRD also pointed out that the majority of reported gastrointestinal and eye symptoms were mild, rarely requiring more serious treatment than over-the-counter medicines. According to the District, these findings suggest that the financial and environmental costs of disinfection outweigh its public health benefits.

IEPA and several environmental groups disputed the District's claims. They argued first that CHEERS was an imperfect study and that, by itself, it doesn't prove that the current health risks of water recreation won't be reduced by disinfection. Given the well-established connection between the microbes present in undisinfected effluent and human illness, they claimed, the CHEERS findings are not sufficient reason to postpone new public health measures. Proponents of disinfection also argued that 12 cases of acute gastrointestinal illness and 16 cases of eye symptoms per 1,000 recreators represent an unacceptable level of risk that warrants substantial efforts to improve water quality on the CAWS. 

And so the debate continues. The rulemaking hearings have become the longest in IPCB history. All the testimony and public comments are available on the IPCB website. (Scroll down to the bottom of the page and look for Rulemaking 2008–09.) The IPCB's ruling on disinfection should come sometime in 2011. I am anxiously awaiting their decision.

Read related testimony and public comments

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2010 Facts and Figures

  • 34 out of 35: Board meetings, study sessions, and public hearings attended
  • 54: Miles hiked in the Sierra Nevada

Photo: Kate Reid

  • 1: Award received (Tree of Life from the Jewish National Fund)
  • 2: Boards on which I served as an officer (The Great Lakes Protection Fund and the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Institute)
  • 6.534 billion: Gallons of stormwater overflow released into Lake Michigan during July 24 storm
  • 3: Large boxes filled with unused and expired pharmaceuticals and dropped off at the Stickney Wastewater Treatment Plant on Drug Take-Back Day in September
  • 33: Speaking engagements in Cook County
  • Best Book Read This Year: Tinkers by Paul Harding
  • Best Audiobook Heard This Year: At Home by Bill Bryson

Looming Issues

Sanitary Sewer Overflows and Basement Backups

Anyone who has experienced the unpleasant task of cleaning up after a basement sewer backup knows that heavy rainfall can overload sanitary sewer systems and lead to damaging and messy consequences. When groundwater enters the sewage system through deteriorating or defective pipes, that is called infiltration, and when storm water enters the system through illegally connected drainage systems (e.g., downspouts or sump pumps) or defective sewer access points (e.g., manhole covers), that is called inflow. Excessive infiltration and inflow (also know as I/I) is the leading cause of SSOs and basement backups and is responsible for millions of dollars each year in water treatment costs for MWRD.

The MWRD is working with local municipalities to reduce I/I, which will require the cooperation of the homeowners and businesses controlling 10,000 miles of laterals, and municipalities, which control another 10,000 miles of local sewer systems. At a February 28, 2011 meeting, municipalities and MWRD established an immediate consensus on the need to eliminate SSOs and backups. For the first time since 1985, a collaborative Sewer Summit is being planned to develop strategies and identify funding sources to rein in excessive I/I.

District Sued for Alleged Violations of Clean Water Act

On May 4, 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Prairie Rivers Network sued the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in federal court citing violations of the Clean Water Act and the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits. 

The Claimants contend that effluent from MWRD's water reclamation plants and combined sewer overflows are not meeting dissolved oxygen standards and offensive conditions narrative standards. Lawsuits like this are a common technique by the environmental community to compel the U.S. EPA to exercise its enforcement authority. The suit claims that the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the treated wastewater discharged into the waterways encourages the growth of algae that then reduces the amount of oxygen needed for a healthy aquatic ecosystem. (Indeed, Cook County's wastewater has been identified as the largest single point-source contribution to the nutrient load, causing the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico — though this contribution represents only a small fraction of the total nutrient load.)

Although I support the goals of the Claimants, I would much rather spend taxpayers' money on finding and implementing solutions to environmental problems than on attorneys' fees. 

I hope that my fellow Commissioners, the Claimants, others in the environmental community, municipalities, Illinois EPA, U.S. EPA, and other stakeholders will be open to a frank discussion about environmental degradation in the Chicago Area Waterway System and will work together on long-term solutions. Our discussion must be comprehensive and include considerations such as water quality, fiscal constraints, energy demands, and global climate change.