Today Sierra Club and partners celebrate a milestone agreement with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) to address nutrient pollution impacts in Chicago’s rivers and downstream waters. With guidance from representatives of the environmental groups and the Illinois EPA, MWRD will develop a plan over the next seven years designed to address excessive plant and algae growth in Chicago Area waterways.
Too many nutrients in our waterways, especially phosphorus from wastewater discharges and combined sewer overflows, fuel the overgrowth of aquatic plants and algae that in turn suck needed oxygen out of the waters. Chicago’s waterways have seen a remarkable recovery in diversity of fish and other aquatic life as water quality has improved in recent years, but further recovery is hampered by excessive plant/algae growth.
As a backstop to the to-be-developed plan, MWRD has agreed to further cut phosphorus discharges from its three large Chicago wastewater treatment plants to 0.5 mg/L by 2030, if a more stringent limit is not developed by then. MWRD will also study what it will take to reduce its phosphorus discharges to the even lower levels (as low as 0.1 mg/L) that some plants elsewhere in the nation are already meeting. MWRD has already demonstrated its ability to find innovative ways to pull phosphorus out of its wastewater and has created a marketable fertilizer product with the addition last year of the world’s largest nutrient recovery system at its Stickney plant.
Understanding the impacts of nutrients on algae and plant growth and oxygen levels in our waterways requires good data. To that end, MWRD has also agreed to sponsor a water quality monitoring station on the Des Plaines River in Joliet for the next four years. It will continuously measure levels of nitrates, phosphorus, oxygen, and chlorophyll along with other basic parameters. At the same time, Illinois EPA will monitor chlorophyll and oxygen levels and basic parameters downstream in the Marseilles, Starved Rock and Peoria pools on the Illinois River. If, as we expect, it is found that serious problems are being caused by phosphorus in the lower Des Plaines and Illinois rivers, a watershed committee will be formed to address those problems.
Just 10 years ago, Chicago’s rivers were largely treated as a watery sacrifice zone. We didn’t require these waterways to meet the levels of cleanliness we set for other waters in the state. MWRD did not disinfect its wastewater, despite the growing number of people out paddling and rowing. The effort to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs) was uncertain, with completion of the Deep Tunnel project to capture and treat CSOs long-delayed and not mandated. Now MWRD disinfects its wastewater at all but the Stickney plant (we hope that is to come in the near future). They are busy working on green infrastructure
projects— such as the Space to Grow program that converts paved schoolyards into beautiful playgrounds and gardens that also soak up rain and snow. They completed the Thornton reservoir in 2015 which can store 7.9 billion gallons. Both green and gray infrastructure projects are needed measures to reduce CSOs.
It has never been more important that local governments and states show leadership in protecting our waters and investing in clean water infrastructure. With this agreement, MWRD is setting an example of that leadership and we are excited to partner with them on this work in the years to come.
With progress being made on disinfection and CSOs, this agreement to address nutrient pollution is the third critical initiative needed for a brighter future for Chicago’s waterways. As we modernize our area’s water infrastructure, we also create good jobs, boosting our local economy along with the cleaner rivers that will also draw people and businesses. Today’s announcement sets the stage for Chicago’s rivers to truly become Chicago’s second great waterfront, where people will increasingly want to work and play.
See our joint statement with MWRD on this step forward for clean water.
See our press release on this agreement which settles two Clean Water Act legal cases we brought with our environmental partners to address MWRD’s phosphorus pollution.
Read NRDC’s blog if you’d like more detail on the history of the legal cases and the elements of this historic agreement.