2015 Annual Report

“We rarely think about it,” writes Steven Johnson in his fascinating book How We Got to Now, “but the growth and vitality of cities have always been dependent on our ability to manage the flow of human waste that emerges when people crowd together. From the very beginnings of human settlements, figuring out where to put all the excrement has been just as important as figuring out how to build shelter or town squares or marketplaces.”

How We Got to Now

It’s no wonder that throughout history people have congregated and settled along rivers. Rivers serve as vital routes for moving people and goods, as transportation corridors and water supply, but they also move. Waste dumped into rivers is washed downstream. Nature is resilient, processing and recycling waste in modest amounts. Sunlight disinfects bacteria; nutrients cycle into fertilizer. But as the number of people increases, their waste overwhelms the capacity of natural systems to deal with it. Rivers and harbors become polluted; people get sick.

“Building a city on perfectly flat land would seem like a good problem to have,” Steven Johnson writes in How We Got to Now, the book and television series exploring six great ideas that made our modern world and our world modern. “…you would think hilly, mountainous terrain like that of San Francisco, Cape Town, or Rio would pose more engineering problems, for buildings and for transportation.” But flat lands don’t drain. And in the middle of the 19th century, as the population of Chicago began to grow rapidly following the completion of the I & M Canal, gravity-based drainage was key to urban sewer systems.

Chicago’s leaders created the Board of Sewerage Commissioners in early 1855 to address the problem of poor drainage and contaminated water. They hired Ellis Chesbrough, then the chief engineer of the Boston Water Works, to come and solve the problem. Burrowing deep underground to build sewers was too expensive and difficult, so Chesbrough came up with another idea. Let’s raise the city itself to make way for sewers! Thus began one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects of its time.

Sanitary District of Chicago trustees in 1916

Sanitary District of Chicago trustees in 1916

“Building by building,” Johnson recounts, “Chicago was lifted by an army of men with jackscrews. As the jackscrews raised the buildings inch by inch, workmen would dig holes under the building foundations and install thick timbers to support them, while masons scrambled to build a new footing under the structure. Sewer lines were inserted beneath buildings with main lines running down the center of streets, which were then buried in landfill that had been dredged out of the Chicago River, raising the city almost ten feet on average.”

“Amazingly, life went on largely undisturbed as Chesbrough’s team raised the city’s buildings. One British visitor observed a 750-ton hotel being lifted, and described the surreal experience in a letter: ‘The people were in [the hotel] all the time coming and going, eating and sleeping — the whole business of the hotel proceeding without interruption.’”

Chesbrough’s brilliance resulted in the first comprehensive American sewer system, right here in Chicago. Over the next three decades, more than 20 cities would follow Chicago’s example. As Johnson notes, “These massive underground engineering projects created a template that would come to define the twentieth-century metropolis: the idea of a city as a system supported by an invisible network of subterranean services….Today, entire parallel worlds exist underground, powering and supporting the cities that rise above them. We think of cities intuitively now in terms of skylines, that epic reach toward the heavens. But the grandeur of those urban cathedrals would be impossible without the hidden world below grade.”

Through enormous enterprise, Chesbrough designed and Chicago built a system to convey waste into the river. But the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan, the primary source of the city’s drinking water, then and now.

MWRD Commissioners in 2015

MWRD Commissioners in 2015

Try to imagine the stench and filth of Chicago’s river 150 years ago. “By the early 1870s,” Johnson writes, “the city’s water supply was so appalling that a sink or tub would regularly be filled with dead fish, poisoned by the human filth and then hoovered up into the city’s water pipes. In summer months, according to one observer, the fish ‘came out cooked and one’s bathtub was apt to be filled with what squeamish citizens called chowder.’”

The solution? More enterprise! No little plans!

The Chicago Sanitary District, established in 1889, commenced digging the 28-mile long Sanitary & Ship Canal to reverse the Chicago River and convey sewage away from the lake, creating drainage where there was none. Still, the difference in elevation from the South Branch of the Chicago River, where the canal begins, to the confluence with the Des Plaines River at Lockport is less than six feet, which means almost no decline over such a long distance. There is no downhill.

Construction of the Sanitary & Ship Canal, 1894

Construction of the Sanitary & Ship Canal, 1894

This 19th century solution to the problem of Chicago’s contaminated drinking water worked well — for a time. But by the late 1960s, as environmental awareness grew and federal and state water quality standards for lakes and rivers were adopted, Chicago was in a bind once again.

And, again, the solution was big and bold. Dig a 100-mile long tunnel deep underground to capture combined sewer overflows keeping sewage and contaminants out of Chicago waterways and excavate massive reservoirs to hold excess water and reduce flooding. Voila! — the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, otherwise known as TARP.

Is Deep Tunnel Finished?

Yes. The tunnel portion of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan was completed in 2006 and has filled to its 2.5-billion-gallon capacity many times since.

Tunnel entrance to Thornton Reservoir
Photo: Richard Cahan

Tunnel entrance to Thornton Reservoir

Photo: Richard Cahan

The tunnel, which prevents pollution of the Chicago waterways by capturing combined sewer overflows, is actually four separate tunnels ranging from nine to 33 feet in diameter, totaling 109 miles of tunnels that are 150 to 300 feet below ground.

Because the system now diverts the “first flush” of stormwater runoff from streets and sewers into the tunnel instead of having that contaminated water overflow into rivers and streams, water quality in the Chicago waterways has improved dramatically. Where once there were no fish species in the Chicago River — because raw sewage in the 1900s sucked up all the oxygen — up to 70 different species are now found there.

What About the Reservoirs? Will They Ever Be Finished?

Yes. Two are completed and operational. The final reservoir will be finished in two stages: in 2017 and in 2029.

TARP included 109 miles of tunnel dug deep underground and three reservoirs to capture stormwater overflow and reduce flooding in Chicago and 50 of the older suburbs that have combined sewer systems. The O’Hare CUP/Majewski Reservoir located near I-90 has been in service since 1988 and can hold 350 million gallons of stormwater overflow. The Thornton Reservoir, a repurposed limestone quarry bisected by I-80, was placed into service in fall 2015 and has already filled with more than 2.5 billion gallons of stormwater and floodwaters from Thorn Creek.

The Thornton Reservoir has the capacity to hold 7.9 billion gallons of water and is considered the largest stormwater reservoir in the world! This is great news because it took 15 years for Hanson Materials to complete mining 76 million tons of limestone from the Thornton Quarry.

Watch water flow into the reservoir for the first time

The McCook Reservoir off I-55, the last of the three, will come online in two stages: the first stage, which will hold 3.5 billion gallons of stormwater overflow and reduce flooding for Chicago and many suburbs, is due to become operational in late 2017. The second stage, however, is not due to be completed until 2029. When finished, the McCook Reservoir will capture 10 billion gallons of stormwater overflow and provide an estimated $114 million annually in flood reduction benefits. The timetable is firm. The feds are watching.

TARP locations in Cook County

TARP locations in Cook County

Big Ideas

The Circular Economy: There Is No Waste

You might hear some especially wonky types talking about “the circular economy.” A Google search will land you first at The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British organization founded by a round-the-world (that’s circular!) sailor named, no surprise, Dame Ellen MacArthur. The linear economy, characterized by “take-make-dispose,” produces enormous amounts of waste. The circular economy is “regenerative and restorative” by design, seeking to recover, reuse, repair, and remanufacture. The transformation of the MWRD into a resource recovery agency is an example of moving from a linear to a circular economy — all those things that we used to consider waste have value, and we are in the process of trying to capture and monetize that value. Here are a few ideas looming on the horizon.

Nutrient Cycle

Nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, are two essential building blocks of the natural world. They also support a healthy food supply by keeping land and crops fertile, and help humans form strong bones, tissues, and maintain vital biological systems. But when these nutrients run off our lawns, campuses, and farms into nearby waterways, they cause harmful pollution and cannot be readily removed. (Because nutrients act as fertilizer, they prompt algae growth, which consumes the oxygen, leaving none for fish and other aquatic life.)

The consequences of this phenomenon, known as the deadzone, are forcing the federal government to enact more stringent regulations on nutrient discharge. A linear economy model would view nutrient removal as a cost, but the circular economy sees a business opportunity. Meet Clearas Water Recovery. The MWRD is planning to pilot Clearas Water Recovery’s nutrient removal technology at the Hanover Park treatment plant to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus from the treated effluent.

Clearas Water’s technology is a bolt-on biological wastewater treatment process that employs three distinct phases. In the blend phase, wastewater full of phosphorus and nitrogen is combined with algae and a proprietary blend of other biological organisms to create a biodiverse mixture. In the nutrient recovery phase, this mixture flows into a vertical pond system that reacts with light 24 hours a day, allowing the algae to metabolize nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon. The algae culture cleans the water by digesting the organics and releasing oxygen to the atmosphere (meaning that the process captures harmful CO2 and converts it into essential O2). In the final separation phase, clean water flows from the vertical ponds into receiving water tanks or the natural environment.

If you have ever baked bread, you know that a portion of the baking yeast culture is saved to grow the culture for the next batch to provide consistent flavor and texture. In the case of Clearas Water, some of the algae/microorganism mixture is recycled back to the blend phase to consistently replicate the biological process. Operated properly, the biological system can reduce phosphorus levels in sewage by a factor of 10, and nitrogen levels by a factor of three. The excess “activated” algae, microorganisms, and carbon materials can be used to produce commercial-grade phosphorus or nitrogen. Novel scientific processes are now able to convert biomass into a variety of products, and Clearas Water Recovery aims to convert excess biomass into bioplastics.

Bioplastics, you say? Yes, indeed. Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Nike, Heinz, and Ford Motor Corporation, among others, have expressed an interest in this emerging field. Bioplastics can be produced from food waste, agricultural waste, and even human waste products, including byproduct material from most wastewater treatment systems. The MWRD has a renewable supply of organic wastes and ample land holdings to establish a circular economy of its own.

To make this vision a reality, the District is looking to prove the process is viable at scale and working with economic development organizations, such as World Business Chicago, to find end users for the bioplastics produced. We’re ready to set sail!

Urban Heat Cycle

Are you beginning to get the idea that we have to change the way we think about waste? Already we’ve demonstrated that human waste and stormwater have valuable nutrients in them that can be captured and repurposed for fertilizer and bioplastics. Next, let’s consider what ought to be a hot topic — heat.

Not least among the valuables we pour down the drain and flush down our toilets is heat. Our modern urban systems are largely built around the use of fossil fuels to deliver water and heat (via pumping and blowing) into our homes and businesses, where the fuel is gone forever and the heat eventually dissipates. Some of that heat, however, is flushed into our sewers via human waste (exiting us at approximately 98° F)as well as water from dishwashers, sinks, showers and tubs, and washing machines. That hot water mixes with food waste from garbage disposals and bacteria that can produce even more heat while in the sewer system.

What if we were able to capture and use the heat now flowing through our sewer systems? It’s called sewer heat recovery, and some places have already taken the lead.

In Vancouver, B.C., for example, multiple systems continually recover heat from the sewer to provide heat and hot water to all the buildings in a community. Unlike most forms of renewable energy, sewer heat recovery is supported entirely by established technologies, primarily the heat pump. A heat pump absorbs heat from one space and releases it to another. In sewer heat recovery, the heat pump absorbs heat from the sewer pipe and releases heat to a completely separate source of water, which is then upgraded to higher temperatures and delivered to customers. Heat recovered from the sewer supplies up to 70 percent of the community’s energy needs, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 50 percent. Linear to circular: heat waste to heat value.

MWRD currently operates a sewer heat recovery system at the Kirie treatment plant in Des Plaines, using the heat recovered from the wastewater flow to preheat anaerobic digesters, which convert organic materials into biogas.

That’s good, for sure, but what about the larger picture, all the heat value that is being lost in the local sewer pipes owned and maintained by each municipality? I hope in coming years that MWRD can play a leading role in organizing stakeholders, providing technical know-how, and collaborating on a demonstration project to test sewer heat recovery on a larger scale.

The Fourth Reservoir

As originally conceived nearly 60 years ago, the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan consisted of a Deep Tunnel and three reservoirs to prevent pollution, reduce combined sewer overflows, and diminish flooding in the Chicago region. Though the plan did account for significant growth across Cook County, anticipating the increase in impervious surface that causes more stormwater runoff, it did not predict the intense rain events we’ve been experiencing in recent years. Moreover, people used to expect water in their basements now and then — local sewers were chronically undersized. How can we capture rain where it falls and keep it out of the sewers so they can do their job conveying wastewater from homes and businesses to treatment plants? How do we address these highly localized, less predictable, and more frequent storms (a symptom of climate change, perhaps)?

MWRD Executive Director David St. Pierre has an innovative answer: the fourth reservoir.

Instead of another single huge hole in the ground, however, imagine a 2,000-gallon rain capture system that can hold rain flowing off your roof. It could look like a large cistern or a bench around the perimeter of your property. It could be an underground tank or a playful hollow sculpture.

Imagine a “smart valve” tied into weather telemetry that could release water held in the tank in advance of a storm. Picture these tanks as a network of rain capture systems distributed throughout a neighborhood at homes and businesses.

If you had these tanks salted throughout an area — each capturing and holding 2,000 gallons and keeping that amount of rainwater out of the sewers during the most intense part of a rainstorm — you would be able to give the sewers more capacity when they need it, and allow some of that water to discharge into rain gardens, permeable parking lots, and bioswales, thus recharging our underground water supply. And here’s the kicker — recent modeling of Chicago’s sewer system shows that this system of fourth reservoirs would cost one-third as much as upsizing pipes and is the only approach that would reduce flooding throughout the city. This is the future. Distributed networks instead of single central facilities. People, get ready — the fourth reservoir will make Chicago the Resiliency Capital for the 21st century!

The Flowing Economy: Good for Jobs, Good for the Environment

I’ve been saying for years that we cannot have a healthy economy without having a healthy environment. A powerful new study released last September has put solid numbers to that assertion — namely, that operations and construction expenditures by the MWRD saved or created 13,200 total jobs in 2014, including 7,400 direct construction, water, and sewage jobs, and boosted the regional economy by $1.3 billion. In A Flowing Economy, How Clean Water Infrastructure Investments Support Good Jobs in Chicago and Illinois, Frank Manzo (Policy Director at the Illinois Economic Policy Institute) and Professor Robert Bruno (Director of the Labor Education Program and the Program for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) said outright that “Nowhere are the economic and employment benefits of clean water more apparent than in the Chicago area….These expenditures improved the quality of Chicago area water, increased worker productivity by improving regional health, and prevented flood and other water damage.”

Manzo and Bruno found, for instance, that “the average blue-collar construction worker in water infrastructure adds $162.92 per hour to Illinois’ gross domestic product.”

Using special economic impact analysis software and data from MWRD and the State of Illinois, the authors were able to assess direct, indirect, and induced impacts from public investment. Again the study ratifies what we already knew: MWRD is an economic engine for Cook County.

“In 2014, MWRD functions and investments boosted the regional economy by $1.27 billion and created 13,200 jobs in total,” Manzo and Bruno said. “Compared to total expenditures, the net gain in economic value added effectively represents a 7.8 percent ‘return on investment’ over the year. In addition, MWRD spending is responsible for a 0.5 percentage-point reduction in the Cook County unemployment rate; without MWRD, Cook County’s unemployment rate in January 2015 would have been 7.6 percent instead of 7.1 percent.”

MWRD nutrient recovery creates jobs
Photo: Dan Wendt

MWRD nutrient recovery creates jobs

Photo: Dan Wendt

The study also lists a number of opportunities (and challenges) that will promote economic activity in the future: removing nutrients, reducing combined sewer overflows, controlling invasive species, and implementing green infrastructure projects.

It’s important to note that the Sierra Club Illinois and the Chicago Federation of Labor jointly funded the Flowing Economy. They get it — green (and blue) jobs equal a healthy economy.

Read the Flowing Economy report

Notable Events in 2015

Debra Shore marries her partner of 21 years, Kathleen Gillespie, at The Grove National Historic Landmark in Glenview. No rain today — but still a watershed moment.

Two new skimmer boats are christened. Skim Pickens and Skimmy Dipper collect trash, floatables, and smaller debris from the Chicago waterways during the recreational season.

Debra appears as special guest on Chicago’s only late-night talk show news alternative, Good Evening with Pat Whalen! “Pat,” she says, stressing the value of water, “Without water, we have no beer!”

Left photo: Dan Wendt

Left photo: Dan Wendt

After releasing 195,000 baby channel catfish in the Chicago waterways, Friends of the Chicago River and Illinois DNR install 400 nesting cavities for channel catfish.

After five months, service resumes for 2,900 daily riders on the CTA Yellow Line that halted after an embankment subsided on May 17. No train cars derailed and no one was injured.

Cycle P15, inspired by MWRD’s phosphorus recovery project, is exhibited at the MWRD Annex for Chicago Artists Month. The work was sponsored by Terracom, Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, and Black & Veatch.