Critics: MWRD budget should include disinfection

  • By Jennifer Slosar
  • Environment Reporter
  • December 11, 2008 @ 9:00 AM

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago's proposed budget won praise from a major civic group yesterday, while environmental organizations say the agency should more aggressively pursue water quality initiatives.

The budget calls for spending to rise by $100 million next year, to $1.5 billion. The increase is largely due to capital improvements for three of the district's  aging treatment plants and its deep tunnel project. 

The district will fund those improvements primarily by issuing bonds. The proposed budget calls for the MWRD's property tax rate to fall by 3.3 percent.

District commissioners heard public comment on the budget at a meeting yesterday.

“The MWRD’s tentative budget is a fiscally responsible plan that minimizes the burden on property taxpayers through long-term financial planning and personnel cost containment,” says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, an independent, non-partisan government research organization.

But environmental groups at the hearing called on the district to take stronger action on a number of fronts.

The district’s Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, which aims to reduce discharge of overflow sewage into the watershed, is significant, but not enough, says Stacy Meyers-Glen, policy coordinator the conservation organization Openlands.

She wants to see the district “take the next bold step” by disinfecting and reducing excess nutrients in the effluent of all of its major reclamation plants.

Currently, the district disinfects at three of its suburban plants. But it does not disinfect sewage effluent discharged from its Calumet, Stickney and North Side plants. The Illinois Pollution Control Board is expected to rule next year on whether to require disinfection.

MWRD General Superintendent Richard Lanyon says the district’s decision on disinfection is contingent upon the upcoming pollution control board ruling.

“If the rulemaking decides that we have to implement that technology, then we would include funds in our budget,” says Lanyon.

Currently, there are no state standards for removal of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen, and the district has no plant to invest in nutrient removal, says Lanyon.

Steve Wise, a program director at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, called for increased investment in projects that incorporate “green infrastructure.”

Advocates say green infrastructure approaches, including rain gardens, green roofs, bioswales, permeable pavement, and design changes for streets and alleys, represent a cost-effective and environmentally beneficial way to decrease flooding and pollution.

Wise urged the district to go beyond pilot projects on its own property and contribute to projects in the wider area.

This is especially important, he says, because the district is in the process of drafting a Watershed Management Ordinance that will standardize storm management practices for municipalities across Cook County. The ordinance and the on-going watershed planning process, will guide decisions about future capital improvement projects.

The district is way behind the curve compared to other major cities, says Wise.
He noted that the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District has budgeted several million dollars for green infrastructure in its capital improvement program over the next few years, and New York City has begun investing billions.

“There’s not the slightest hint in the budget description that such action is being considered,” Wise says, “even though it is a strategy that would have a substantial positive impact on the budget and storm water management in the County.”

Board commissioners are expected to adopt the budget at a meeting at 10 a.m.  State law allows the commissioners to amend the budget at their last regular board meeting on Dec. 18.

Jennifer Slosar is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News