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Henry Henderson

Henry Henderson

Posted: January 28, 2010 10:46 PM

Windiest in the Windy City? MWRD

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Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogYou’ve probably heard that “The Windy City” nickname was coined for Chicago’s “big talk,” rather than any meteorological phenomena. But this week the regional water regulators may have taken this to a wacky new level.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is an independent, elected regional government that oversees the water infrastructure for an 800+ square mile area around Chicago. This week, a pair of stories showed the District to be the windiest folks in the Windy City by highlighting the District’s penchant for over the top gloom and doom rhetoric. (Some would say this is particularly brutal criticism coming from an environmentalist!)

Cleaner River = Global Warming?

Last week, that was the Chicago Tribune's front page headline for an article outlining the MWRD’s newest outlandish reason for fighting tooth and nail to keep Chicago as the only major city in America that does not disinfect its sewage. I’ve said it before and will say it again, they dump human waste into the Chicago River -- and do not disinfect the intestinal miasma. And they have spent millions of dollars to fight for the right to keep doing it over the objections of the City of Chicago, Illinois EPA, USEPA, and groups like NRDC, Friends of the Chicago River, Open Lands, ELPC and Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Their normal excuse for the dumping is the high cost associated with the technology (in reality the costs translate to less than $2/household/month). In an amazingly provocative attempt to change the topic the District has decided that its resistance to disinfection is rooted in concern for the environment. We are fighting global warming… As their thinking goes, disinfecting the water will require additional electricity and that will increase their carbon footprint.

We haven’t been able to get a look at the data that they are basing this on to see what assumptions underlay their numbers.  We’ve been told that, contrary to media reports, a formal report has not been drafted. I am sure you don’t need anyone to point out that this is just a wildly disingenuous charade -- but it is an open question as to whether this was done for amusement alone or because they think anyone will believe it.

If MWRD really wants to do right by its ratepayers, they should embrace energy efficiency so that they can both reduce their carbon footprint and save ratepayers cash.

Stopping Asian Carp = Destroying the American Economy?

The District is also a defendant in the Supreme Court case over Asian carp, as they oversee the waterway that currently serves as the highway to the Great Lakes for the invasive fish. Their brief to the Court is a fascinating read. In it, they question the science being used to track the carp’s movement (which has been endorsed as “actionable” intelligence by federal scientists), belittle the problem’s severity since a few of the fish have been found elsewhere in the Lakes, and threaten that Chicago would be swamped with a multi-billion dollar flood (despite that fact that Michigan expressly asked that measures be taken to prevent this) should they be forced to action.

You might have caught this great piece on PBS NewsHour with more doom and gloom talk from MWRD, along the same lines:


But, hey, these guys have been busy. Last week, I testified at the Illinois Senate’s Environment Committee hearing on this subject. So did the District. Not only did they trot out the same doomsday and denial points, but they also noted that the American economy is reliant on the goods that flow through the Chicago Diversion and down the Illinois River. Yikes! Who knew that the world revolved around MWRD?

The problem here is that the folks at the District seem to be in love with their own water system. A century ago when we reversed the flow of the Chicago River and set up the infrastructure that is still in use today, it was cutting edge stuff. But not today.

We like to talk about Chicago as a world class city and a hub of innovation. But the status quo being championed by MWRD is far from it. What we are seeking isn’t innovation, but problem solving.  Significant upgrades are required, but preventing  more harmful pathogens from hitting Chicago’s waterways and Asian carp from the hitting the Great Lakes are part of giving this region the modern water system it deserves.

But don’t try telling that to Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. A cold wind blows…

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.