Tag Archives: MWRD

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.


The End of An Era – MWRD Votes To Disinfect Chicago River

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.

MWRD Commissionsers and Chicago River advocates celebrate

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.

MWRD Delays Disinfection Decision

We are very disappointed that MWRD failed to take action today in support of disinfecting the Chicago River.   Despite the heroic efforts of Commissioners Alvarez, Shore, and Spyropoulos to clean up the river, the MWRD Board did not act on a proposal that they reverse their longstanding opposition to disinfection.

Enough already – Chicagoans have been waiting for years to enjoy the river without fear of getting sick.   MWRD has heard from city, state, and federal government, and most importantly, the public, that it wants a clean and healthy Chicago River as soon as possible.   More than 40 days of hearings have been held by the Illinois Pollution Control Board. What more do they need to hear?   MWRD’s stubbornness is a threat to our health, and a disservice to Cook County taxpayers.

Change will come to the MWRD, and Chicagoans will have a healthy river.  It’s a shame that it has taken this long – apparently MWRD will be the last agency in Chicago to do its part in addressing this important public health issue.