Our Illinois Green Party candidates for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago are running on a unified platform of issues specific to the MWRD and its Board of Commissioners:
Flood-Preventing Green Infrastructure
Flood prevention is critical both to prevent property damage and as a public health concern. Because most of Cook County uses a "combined sewer" system, in which rain water and wastewater flow into the same pipes, overflow from those pipes during heavy rains contains human and industrial waste, which can cause sickness and long-term soil contamination.
Cook County currently relies on the 1970s-era Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), popularly known as "Deep Tunnel," for flood prevention. Despite more than 40 years of development and over $4 billion spent, TARP has not been able to stop flooding and sewer discharges in Cook County:
- In 2017, the MWRD reported nearly 2000 "combined sewer outflows" (meaning dumps of raw, untreated sewage) into Cook County waterways.
- Among the 2017 outflows was a critical outflow into Lake Michigan, the source of Chicago's drinking water. TARP/Deep Tunnel was created to end the practice of dumping untreated sewage into the lake, but it has demonstrably failed to do so.
- The Chicago Tribune examined MWRD records in 2017 and found that, on average, raw sewage is dumped into Cook County waterways once every six days.
- As recently as February 2018, the entire TARP/Deep Tunnel system reached capacity in less than a day of heavy rains.
Green Party candidates will push the MWRD to invest in flood-absorbing green infrastructure, including wetlands development, parks and forest preserves with deep-rooted trees and plants, bioswales along roads and paved areas, and other measures that capture rainwater before it hits the combined sewer system.
Many green spaces are also of civic use: parks, gardens, and recreational wooded trails are all rain-absorbing uses of public land. The MWRD is one of the largest land owners in Cook County, with roughly 9,500 acres of property, very little of which is currently devoted to flood-preventing green infrastructure. That property can—and should—be developed for rain absorption and flood abatement.
Under the current administration, large parcels of MWRD land are rented out to private, industrial tenants, often at sub-market rates, including known waterway polluters. Ending the "toxic tenant" leases and replacing that paved, polluting space with rain-absorbing infrastructure should be a no-brainer for the MWRD.
Government Reform & Ethical Leadership
With an annual operating budget of over $1 billion, the MWRD represents a massive taxpayer investment, and voters deserve Commissioners who will be open, transparent, and accountable to the public.
Unfortunately, under decades of all-Democrat control, a culture of insider dealing and cozy relationships with government contractors has flourished at the Board. Over the past five years, the majority of MWRD contracts—over $722 million in taxpayer money, all told—went to campaign donors of the current Commissioners.
When asked by the Daily Herald about the appearance of pay-to-play, incumbent Commissioner Debra Shore defended the practice by claiming that her campaign voluntarily followed ethics standards "similar to" those required of Cook County and City of Chicago candidates. Those are famously loose standards to begin with, but examination of Shore's campaign committee records showed at least 45 donations in violation of Cook County restrictions on donations from entities doing business or seeking to do business with the government.
Green Party candidates do not take corporate donations. Voters can trust that Green Party members on the Board will evaluate every contract bid fairly, without the influence of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from some of the bidding companies.
Greens would also support the appointment of an independent, fully-funded Inspector General for the MWRD, a reform that has long been sought by watchdog groups and journalists.
Additionally, Greens would push for restrictions on favoritism and nepotism in MWRD hiring. Currently, two of the nine Democrat Commissioners employee their own children as administrative assistants (with a $100,000/year salary and benefits). In both cases, the Commissioner's child was hired shortly after the Commissioner's election.
Third-stage disinfection treatment is industry-standard for modern municipal wastewater treatment. Chicago lags behind, with only two of its seven treatment plants (accounting for about one-third of total discharge) disinfecting the final discharge before it enters the Chicago Area Waterway System.
Neighbors are all too familiar with the result: bad smells even on clear days, made worse by rain, and hazardous water unfit for drinking or recreation.
While taxpayers are understandably leery of major infrastructure investments (particularly given the incumbents' cozy relationship with District contractors), disinfection at all seven wastewater plans is an upgrade that should have happened years ago.
Moreover, with newer, more efficient disinfection treatments that incur less long-term costs and cause less downstream effects than traditional chemical disinfection, the time has never been better for investments in state-of-the-art technologies, bringing Chicago's wastewater treatment mindset out of the 19th Century and into the 21st.
Climate Change and Flood Readiness
Astonishingly, the words "climate change" do not appear in the MWRD Strategic Plan, the guiding document for the agency prepared by the Board of Commissioners.
This is a glaring omission of the number one issue facing our planet. Chicago's water supply -- and therefore its wastewater management -- is only going to increase in importance as global climate change affects more vulnerable supplies. In addition to direct effects on the water cycle, climate change is also almost certain to cause substantial migration to water-rich cities like Chicago in the coming century, with a corresponding increase in both wastewater generation and inhabited/paved land.
Green Party candidates will pursue an update to the Strategic Business Plan that puts climate change readiness at the forefront of the MWRD's mission. We will work to protect and strengthen the 2013 Cook County Watershed Management Ordinance, and we will call for regularly-updating standards that take into account both the increasing pavement cover of Cook County and the likely impacts of global climate change.
Additionally, Green Party candidates will oppose measures that would weaken flood-preparation standards or allow "fast-tracked" construction to begin before flood-control measures have been approved. The MWRD must hold developers responsible for the floodwater impact of every project.
Contract Reform & Municipalization of Projects
Green Party candidates believe that MWRD spending should stay within the district. We will prioritize the hiring of local workers, and the awarding of contracts to locally-owned businesses.
Additionally, the Green Party believes that the MWRD should be prioritizing in-house skills development and expansion of its own capabilities, rather than relying on private contracts with well-connected campaign donors for civic projects.
Deep Tunnel/TARP has been under development for over 40 years—enough time for the MWRD to have raised and trained a generation of engineers from birth, if it had wanted to, and yet most of the project's enormous physical infrastructure was built by private contractors. Cost overruns and endless contracting cycles have driven what was supposed to be a $1 billion project well over $4 billion, with final cost estimates upwards of $10 billion.
Contracting out every construction and engineering job is penny-wise but pound-foolish: it trims the staff and machine budget in the short term, at the expense of having to post a new bid for every new job. For long-term savings, and to keep talent and institutional knowledge in Chicago and the MWRD, the Board of Commissioners should prioritize in-house, municipalized projects wherever possible.
Safe Use & Disclosure of Biosolids
One inevitable byproduct of the waste treatment process: "biosolids," or in simpler terms, treated sewage sludge.
The MWRD currently distributes biosolids under the misleading (and largely meaningless) label "exceptional quality compost." The Green Party supports the responsible use of biosolids as a source of plant nutrients, but we will demand clear and simple labeling of biosolids and biosolids-derived products.
We will further demand a clear and publicly-available plan for all public uses of biosolids, including in parks and near other children's play areas.