Author Archives: Cindy Skrukrud

World Water Day 2017: Why Wastewater?

WWD-GENERIQ-CMJN_EN_2017_squareToday is World Water Day. Every March 22nd the United Nations uses this day to draw attention to the importance of freshwater and the need to sustainably manage our limited freshwater resources.

This year’s theme is Why Wastewater? Globally, over 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. The UN has set a goal to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. The desired targets are universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water as well adequate and equitable sanitation for all. In addition, reusing wastewater as a resource can provide a sustainable source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable materials.

In countries like the United States, most of our wastewater is treated but we still have problems with the way we manage our water. Combined sewer overflows are commonplace, making our waterways unsafe for recreators when storms overwhelm sewer systems and raw sewage flows into our waterways. High levels of nutrients from wastewater discharges and agricultural runoff cause problems with algae over-growth in our waterways. Algae can create taste and odor problems for communities that pull their drinking water from rivers and lakes. An over-abundance of algae and aquatic plants in bodies of water can also consume the oxygen in the water that fish and other aquatic organisms need to survive. The largest example of this problem in the USA is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of the state of Connecticut.

4_Card_WWD2017But the news is not all bad. Here in Illinois wastewater agencies are taking steps to improve the quality of the wastewater they discharge and to recover both the water and the resources it holds for reuse. For example, over 300,000 people drink water taken from the Fox River. By 2021, wastewater dischargers will reduce the summertime load of phosphorus going in the river by 75%. Less phosphorus means less algae in the water, reducing costs for treatment by drinking water suppliers.

The wastewater from McHenry County’s Valley Hi Nursing Home is used to irrigate farmland nearby, effectively returning the water to the ground from which it was drawn while the crops reap the benefits of the nutrients in the wastewater. McHenry County is 100% dependent on groundwater as its source of drinking water so aquifer recharge is vital to sustaining the county’s water supplies.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is pulling nutrients out of its wastewater and turning it into a saleable fertilizer. The world’s largest nutrient recovery facility opened last June.

These examples of treating wastewater as a resource can be widely implemented. Of course, adapting our current water and wastewater systems to be more sustainable requires investment. Today the Value of Water Campaign released its Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure report. The report concludes that investing in water infrastructure will build a prosperous America while creating high quality jobs. That’s what our Flowing Economy: How Clean Water Infrastructure Investments Support Good Jobs in Chicago and in Illinois report also laid out last year.

3_Card_WWD2017Providing safe water for people worldwide depends on all of us to not waste the precious limited freshwater resources we have. Investing in those resources makes sense both to develop a sustainable water future and to create good jobs now. That is why we are so dismayed at President Trump’s budget proposal to eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the fund targeted to protect and restore the source of 20% of the world’s freshwater. You can help by letting your national representatives know you are counting on them to save the Great Lakes.

You can also help by joining our Clean Water Team to help hold our elected officials accountable for protecting clean water and conserving water resources. Sign up here! Together we can create a world where we waste water no more!

A Brighter Future for Chicago and Illinois Waterways

chicagor1-19-17Today 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.


Algae and plants in the North Shore Channel

 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.


Algae in the Illinois River

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.


Chapter Director Jack Darin addressing the MWRD Commissioners on partnering to implement the agreement.

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.

Good News for Chicago Waterways!

Senator Durbin joins MWRD commissioners in cutting the ribbon on the new disinfection facilities at the Calumet wastewater plant.

Senator Durbin joins MWRD commissioners in cutting the ribbon on the new disinfection facilities at the Calumet wastewater plant.

Senator Durbin cut the ribbon last Friday at the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant, as new disinfection equipment was dedicated at this Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) facility that treats wastewater for one million people living in South Chicago and surrounding suburbs. The new treatment will kill pathogenic bacteria in the wastewater that is discharged to the Calumet River. This improvement in water treatment is one result of years of effort to improve the standards for Chicago’s rivers in order to better protect people who recreate on and creatures who live in them.

In June, the longest rulemaking in the history of the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) ended with the board adopting greatly improved standards for numerous pollutants in the Chicago Area Waterways Systems (CAWS) and Lower Des Plaines River (LDPR).

In 2000, Illinois EPA began looking at upgrading the standards for the CAWS and LDPR for the first time since the Clean Water Act went into effect 43 years ago. Eight years ago the IEPA proposed new standards to the IPCB. Sierra Club Illinois and other advocates for cleaner rivers participated at numerous hearings and by filing written comments along with representatives from MWRD and industrial dischargers.

Recreational Use Map

Designated Recreational Uses in Chicago’s rivers. Source: MWRD-J. Wasik

The first thing decided in the rulemaking in 2011 was that more and more people are out recreating on the CAWS and LDPR and need to be protected from pathogens that survive the basis wastewater treatment process. Portions of the CAWS have been upgraded to protect people who swim, dive, and jump in the water; these reaches are designated for primary contact. Other portions have been upgraded to protect people who are wading, fishing, paddling and boating who may have incidental contact with river water. The result is that MWRD is now required to disinfect the wastewater it discharges from its Calumet plant on the southside of Chicago and the O’Brien plant on the northside. The Calumet plant began discharging disinfected wastewater last week, and the O’Brien plant will begin disinfecting its water later this year.

On June 18, 2015 the IPCB issued its final order to upgrade numerous other standards for the waterways. Lower levels of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc will be permitted to be discharged into the rivers. For the first time, limits have been placed on discharges on dangerous compounds such as benzene and toluene.

More stringent standards limiting thermal pollution have also been adopted for the waterways. The updated thermal standards are set to go into effect in 3 years, despite a last ditch effort by NRG Energy to delay their effective date.

These improved standards are designed to protect the fish and other aquatic life that have returned to Chicago’s waters as the treatment of wastewater and industrial discharges has improved under the Clean Water Act. The final step is approval by US EPA which is currently reviewing the standards.

Citizens Win Eight-Year Battle to Stop Coal Strip Mine

Local Water Resources Saved Upstream of Public Water Supply Lake

IDNR Stream Protection Errors Exposed


CANTON, Ill. – The court case contesting the North Canton coal strip mine permit was officially ended January 16th, winning an eight-year battle by citizens of Fulton County to protect Canton Lake and its watershed that supplies drinking water to over 20,000 residents. Capital Resources Development Company LLC, an affiliate of Springfield Coal Company LLC, asked to terminate its Permit No. 385 before citizens reached a full court hearing where they had challenged the mine and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) regarding errors in the permit approval.

“For the residents of Canton and Orion townships this is wonderful news for our water supply and for our land,” said Brenda Dilts, Leader of the Canton Area Citizens for Environmental Issues, Canton Lake and Its Watershed (CACEI). “We did not want an arm of Springfield Coal, the company that had racked up over 600 water permit violations at the Industry Mine, discharging polluted water into our public water supply lake. The strip mine would destroy much of the natural drainage and be harmful to the environment, the watershed and to the people in the community.”

In February 2013, Sierra Club and members of CACEI won a state administrative level permit appeal in part and saved a major stream corridor proposed for strip mining about one mile upstream of Canton Lake. Sierra Club and a member of CACEI then filed in Fulton County Circuit Court in an effort to protect the five other streams in the strip mine permit. Most of the streams feed into the main tributary of Canton Lake, a public drinking water supply source.

During the permit challenge brought by the citizens, IDNR admitted on the witness stand, and the Department’s Hearing Officer found, that IDNR had an unwritten policy to ignore a part of its own regulatory definition of “intermittent stream,” thereby circumventing greater stream protections in the permit approval process.

“My farm and home would have been directly across from this mine if it had proceeded,” said Joe Cooper, member of CACEI. “I am so grateful to CACEI, Sierra Club, and all the local Canton people who helped raise alarms about how this could ruin our lake watershed. The state mine permit should never have been approved for this mine. The state mining agency simply was not doing its job to enforce the laws on the books. We proved that.”


“Planning a coal strip mine in the watershed that feeds the drinking water lake that supplies water to over half the population of Fulton County was never a good idea,” said Dr. Cindy Skrukrud, Clean Water Advocate for the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. “It took years of community pressure and legal action for this coal company to realizethat. We’re looking to the IDNR to make the institutional changes necessary to protect the integrity of vital water resources like Canton Lake in its permitting decisions, in line with the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.”

Citizens raised funds to hire an attorney and an expert hydro-geologist through bake sales, garage sales, and a wide range of fund-raisers over the years. Springfield Coal Company owns other mines and also makes revenue back-hauling coal ash from power plants for dumping at old mines.

“The significance of Springfield Coal Company’s permit withdrawal cannot be overstated. This coal company – with sites all over the state and all kinds of coal reserves – was defeated by the dedication, caring and hard work of local citizens,“ said Joyce Blumenshine, Heart of Illinois Group Sierra Club Chair. ”Our attorney, David Wentworth, with the Hasselberg Grebe Snodgrass Urban Wentworth firm in Peoria, had a tremendous case to stop this mine. We fought hard in the community and in court to protect the lake and streams. The fact the mine decided to give up on the eve of our court hearing says a lot.”



Brenda Dilts,  Canton Area Citizens for Environmental Issues, 309-338-9748

Joyce Blumenshine, Heart of Illinois Group Sierra Club, 309-678-1011

 Dr. Cindy Skrukrud, Illinois Chapter Sierra Club,  312-251-1680 x110

Illinois DNR Rejects Coal Mine Proposal After Scofflaw Company Defaults On Bond Obligation

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) recently rejected a permit renewal application for Springfield Coal Company’s Industry Mine.  Citing failure of financial obligations, the June 4 permit denial marks a significant step toward stronger enforcement of coal mining regulations in Illinois.

“By denying this permit, IDNR is letting Springfield Coal and the mining industry know that they need to follow the rules,” said Cindy Skrukrud, Clean Water Advocate for the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club.  “For too long Springfield Coal has been allowed to flout the law and pollute our water supply – hopefully those days are now over.”

The Industry Mine, located in McDonough County, has long been guilty of poor mining practices that endanger the environment, drinking water and public health.  Between 2004 and 2011, the mine violated its Illinois EPA permit a staggering 624 times.  The Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network, and Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) sued the mine in 2009.

IDNR denied the permit because Springfield Coal, the owner of the mine, refused to post a bond that is legally required to ensure the site gets cleaned up and restored after the company is finished mining.


Industry Mine Photo: Joyce Blumenshine

“We are pleased to see the Department continuing to strengthen its regulation of dangerous mines in our state,” said ELPC staff attorney Jessica Dexter.  “This is one step of many that are needed to rein in bad actors and protect our water and citizens.”

The move follows an agreement in April by IDNR Office of Mines & Minerals to initiate a number of reforms in its coal mining permit program; a commitment welcomed by rural Illinois citizens who have long called for stronger enforcement of laws to protect their communities and water supplies.

“Business as usual is over for the Industry Mine but reforms need to continue,” said nearby resident Kim Sedgwick who has battled the devastating impacts of this mine for over a decade. “The Industry Mine site still needs to be reclaimed and IDNR needs to implement the measures it promised in April.  Residents and environmental organizations have repeatedly called on IDNR to better protect the state’s natural resources from the impacts of coal mining— public water supplies should be off limits to coal mines and bad actors should be denied mining permits.  IDNR needs to listen to our concerns and start protecting our communities.”


Traci Barkley (PRN):  217-621-3013

Cindy Skrukrud (Sierra Club): 312-251-1680×110

Manny Gonzales (ELPC): 303-880-5954



Hackmatack! A Dream Come True…

This gallery contains 2 photos.

  “Nothing happens unless first a dream.”                                         -Carl Sandburg About eight years ago, Friends of Hackmatack adopted this quote as … Continue reading

New National Wildlife Refuge Recommended for Illinois-Wisconsin Border

Sierra Club Inner City Outing to Hackmatack Area, September 2011. Photo courtesy of Dan Deters

Sierra Club Inner City Outing to Hackmatack Area, September 2011. Photo courtesy of Dan Deters.

Spring brings good news to Illinois and Wisconsin!

Map of US Fish & Wildlife Service's recommended refuge

US Fish & Wildlife Service's recommended refuge

Today the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recommends the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge be established in McHenry County, IL and Walworth County, WI.

The Fish & Wildlife Service proposes a refuge which would link with and expand on existing lands already protected by the McHenry County Conservation District and Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources.  Their aim is to provide large blocks of habitat for migratory birds and endangered species including declining grassland birds like Dickcissel, Henslow’s sparrow and short-eared owl which nest in restored prairies, the savanna-loving red-headed woodpecker, and wetland-dependent species like the least bittern, pied-billed grebe and the federally endangered Whooping crane. Core blocks of habitat would be linked by corridors which would allow migration of small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and plants in the face of a changing climate.

The Hackmatack refuge would be the closest refuge to the Chicago, Rockford and Milwaukee metro areas, fitting nicely with the USFWS’s policy to establish refuges easily accessible to people living in urban areas. Hackmatack is a Native American word for the tamarack tree, rare this far south, but found within the proposed refuge’s boundaries.

The Fish & Wildlife Service is soliciting public comment through April 27 on their Environmental Assessment that evaluates and recommends establishment of the refuge. Detailed information can be found at the USFWS website. Two open house events to learn more about and submit comments on Service’s recommendation will be held on:

•Tuesday, April 3 from 5 to 8 PM at Lost Valley Visitor Center in Glacial Park, Route 31 and Harts Road, Ringwood IL

•Wednesday, April 4 from 5 to 8 PM at Brookwood Middle School, 1020 Hunter’s Ridge Drive, Genoa City WI

Sierra Club has made it easy to send the USFWS an email in support of the refuge.  Go Hackmatack!