Chicago Water Team Hosts Wastewater Tour with Local High School Students

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This shows the size of some of the tunnels that carry wastewater to the treatment facilities! 

This afternoon, the Sierra Club’s Chicago Water Team and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) hosted an educational event to share the importance of sustainably managing wastewater with local high school students in celebration of World Water Day. World Water Day is a global day of awareness organized by the United Nations and celebrated throughout the world during the week of March 22 to bring public attention to world water issues and take action to address them. (Read our previous blog post about World Water Day.)

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Stage 1 of the McCook Reservoir

A group of 21 students and two teachers from Pritzker College Prep, along with six volunteers from the Chicago Water Team and MWRD Commissioner Josina Morita, traveled to the Mainstream Pumping Station in Hodgkins, southwest of Chicago, for the tour. This facility pumps wastewater collected by the deep tunnel system to send to the Stickney Wastewater Reclamation Plant for treatment. The group also stopped by the McCook Reservoir to see this storage feature that, when completed in 2029, will be able to hold 10 billion gallons and serve an area of 254.7 square miles, and is expected to provide more than $114 million per year in flood damage reduction benefits to 3,100,000 people in 37 communities.

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Students observe a model of the sewer system

The students learned about the importance of treating stormwater and sewage from the city’s combined sewer system before it enters the river in order to protect water quality in Chicago and downstream communities. Despite the current treatment system, untreated sewage and stormwater still enters the waterways when heavy rainfall overwhelms the combined sewer system and causes it to overflow at various outfall points along the river. The McCook and Thornton Reservoirs are intended to reduce the occurrence of these combined sewer overflows and reduce flooding in the areas they serve. While treated wastewater is currently sent downstream and away from the city, MWRD continues to look for ways to turn wastewater into a resource, as evidenced by their new phosphorus recovery system at the Stickney Wastewater Reclamation Plant.

During the tour, we talked about how we can change our behaviors to reduce our waste of water. Taking shorter showers, turning off the faucet when it’s not being used and refraining from doing laundry or washing dishes during rainstorms were some of the action steps shared with the group. Washing one load of laundry takes about 18 gallons of water, which can make a big difference in a city of almost 3 million people. If we reduce our water use, MWRD will be better able to treat the water and prevent sewer overflows into the river.

Here in Chicago, we’re lucky to have one of the greatest freshwater resources- Lake Michigan- which provides drinking water, recreation anClean Water Means Jobs.pngd tourism for the city. Sustainably managing this resource, reducing the waste of water and investing in new ways to protect human health and the environment by protecting our water quality will be increasingly important as the population grows and demand increases. Investments in clean water will bring good, green jobs and economic benefits that will ripple throughout the economy and support our communities and working families. To learn more about the benefits of investing in clean water, read our 2015 report, A Flowing Economy: How Clean Water Infrastructure Investments Support Good Jobs in Chicago and in Illinois.

As the youngest Commissioner on the MWRD Board, Josina told the students that she believes in the power and importance of having young people involved in this work. She encouraged the students to take advantage of internship opportunities with MWRD, which is an agency with every field: engineering, law, accounting, public relations, construction, and more. Talk about some clean water jobs!

We appreciate MWRD’s work to clean our water, and thank them for taking the time to show us how they do it. We also appreciate the enthusiasm of the students for protecting our water resources. With their minds, the future of water is bright- and clean!

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This trip was organized and funded in part by Chicago Inspiring Connections Outdoors, an outreach program of the Sierra Club with a mission of getting young people outdoors to explore, enjoy, and protect the environment. If you’d like to learn more about the program or apply to become a volunteer, please visit our website.

Please visit the Chicago Water Team’s website to learn more about the team’s efforts to improve the waterways of the Chicago area or to join the team. And join us on April 22 for a clean-up at Montrose Beach in celebration of Earth Day! Learn more and register here

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