Today’s vote by the Board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (WRD) Board of Commissioners to reverse its longstanding opposition to disinfecting the effluent it discharges into the Chicago River system marks the end of an era. Today’s vote means that soon Chicagoans can fully enjoy the Chicago River without worrying about getting sick. It also will lead to the creation of thousands of jobs in making clean water upgrades at MWRD’s wastewater plants.
This marks the end of an era when we looked at the Chicago River system as large piece of plumbing whose primary purpose was getting our sewage out of town as fast as possible. For decades, state rules and MWRD treated the river as a second-class waterway, foregoing modern pollution controls required on the rest of Illinois’ waters. Today the District is taking an historic step toward giving us a cleaner urban waterway by acknowledging that people across the region are enjoying the river, and that many more would if they were confident it were safe. Now, hopefully, we can all work together to plan and fund the work needed to accomplish that.
Gone also are the days when Chicago turned its back to the river, while it protected and celebrated our precious Lake Michigan and its shoreline. From Daniel Burnham’s vision of a lakefront that is “forever open, clear and free,” to modern-day protests against threats to the Lake such as Asian Carp or pollution from BP’s Whiting refinery, Chicago’s leaders have long championed our Great Lake. Now, however, the Chicago River, too, has powerful friends in high places. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including Regional Administrator Susan Hedman, increased the pressure on MWRD to act, and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin lent his powerful voice at at critical time. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who happens to live and recreate along the river, have long fought for disinfection. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports disinfection, as Richard Daley did before him. A powerful coalition of river users and clean water advocates worked for over a decade for this victory, including hundreds of Sierra Club volunteers who collected water samples to measure bacteria counts, attended dozens of public hearings, wrote comments to the Illinois Pollution Control Board, and went door to door in neighborhoods along the river seeking support.
Let’s hope this is also the end of an era for the MWRD, which, until today’s reversal, stood in stubborn opposition to the clear demands of the law and the community. MWRD has been a pioneer in many areas of wastewater treatment, but during the decade-long struggle for disinfection the District’s leadership was more likely to circle the wagons against growing criticism than to open their decisionmaking process to community consensus. That all started to change with Commissioner Debra Shore won election to the Board in 2006, and momentum further shifted with the election in 2008 of Commissioners Mariyana Spyropoulos and Michael Alvarez. Together, these three spearheaded an effort to change the Distirct’s longstanding opposition to disinfection, and utlimately the Board voted 8-1 to do so. Hopefully this new clean water consensus on the Board signals a new attitude at the District, and that MWRD will bring its substantial expertise and capacity to this and other issues ahead in the future of managing the Chicago River.