Change Is Slow, But Change Is Coming

by Guest Blogger Debra Shore, commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is an obscure agency with a vital mission: protecting the water supply for millions of Cook County residents and managing stormwater. It’s an agency with a storied past – reversing the Chicago River to keep sewage out of Lake Michigan – and big challenges in the future.

Yet, if you had gone to sleep in 1975 and woke up 30 years later, while whole sectors of our society have changed dramatically – music and video, computers and publishing – sewage treatment has stayed basically the same.

Happily, that’s changing and MWRD is remaking itself into a “resource recovery” agency for the 21st century. The things that we used to consider waste – the methane gas generated by the treatment process, phosphorus in the wastewater, heat and sludge – all these have value and the MWRD is in the process of finding ways to capture and monetize that value.

In early October, the District launched a major nutrient recovery process to remove phosphorus from treated wastewater (where it causes algae growth and pollution in rivers and streams) and turn it into a slow-release fertilizer that we can sell.

Neat! Our chief engineer has plans for MWRD to become energy neutral in a decade. That will allow us to devote $50 million annually to other urgent needs.

When I ran for a seat on the board seven years ago, I was the first person in 20 years to have any kind of conservation background (go figure.) But I believe water is going to be “the” issue in years to come and MWRD has a key role to play in managing our precious freshwater resources.

I started preaching the virtues of green infrastructure, resource recovery, sustainability, and preparing for climate change.

None of these changes are due to my efforts alone, but I also know that I’ve helped to move the agency in a progressive direction, joined by more environmentally minded colleagues like Commissioners Kari Steele and Mariyana Spyropoulos.

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