04/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Governor Quinn Should Appoint Laurene von Klan to MWRD Vacancy

Governor Quinn is off to a good start with the environmental aspects of his administration. He pleased conservation groups with his appointment of Marc Miller as the new head of the state Department of Natural Resources, reversing an 11th hour appointment by former Governor Blagojevich, and he has re-opened the seven state parks that Blagojevich had closed for budgetary reasons.

Another important decision that Quinn is expected to announce soon is his appointment to fill a vacancy on the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. MWRD is a little known entity, but it is responsible for handling sewage and stormwater for 5.3 million residents in Chicago and nearby suburbs. It employs 2,300 people and controls an annual budget of $1.6 billion. It operates the largest wastewater treatment plant in the world, and typically handles over 1 billion gallons of water per day, and sometimes as much as 2 billion gallons.

As reported in January by Jennifer Slosar in the Chi-Town Daily News, Patricia Young, one of the district's nine elected commissioners, resigned to take a better-paying staff job with the District. Governor Quinn will appoint someone to serve the remainder of her term. A great appointment by Quinn could be one of the environmental highlights of his administration.

The Chicago Sanitary District was created in 1889, at the peak of the "Make No Little Plan" era, 18 years after the Chicago Fire and four years before the Chicago World's Fair. In those days, sewage, garbage and horse manure washed into the Chicago River, which flowed into Lake Michigan and then washed back up onto the city's beaches, or occasionally drifted over to the intake pipes for the city's drinking water. After a series of epidemics of infectious diseases, such as cholera and typhoid fever, the city and the District undertook an audacious solution. In one of the most remarkable feats of civil engineering of the century, the District dug two canals and built a lock where the river meets the lake, reversing the flow of the Chicago River, so that Chicago's sewage now flows away from Lake Michigan, to the Des Plaines River and eventually to the Mississippi River.

In 1989, to celebrate its 100th birthday, the Sanitary District built Centennial Fountain, that neat water cannon shooting over the river at McClurg Court, and changed its name to the less icky, but also less descriptive, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

Today the MWRD is facing some important decisions and milestones. While the MWRD uses chlorine to disinfect sewage from the suburbs, no such treatment in used for Chicago's sewage, making Chicago the last big city in the U.S. that still routinely dumps sewage untreated for bacteria and other pathogens into public waterways. But the Illinois Pollution Control Board is nearing completion of a long investigation into whether the District should be required to begin disinfecting all sewage. In February, the District approved a program to test ultraviolet radiation to disinfect wastewater, as a possible alternative to disinfecting with chlorine.

At the same meeting that the commissioners approved spending $75,000 for the UV study, they also approved spending more than ten times that amount for legal fees in their ongoing effort to convince the Pollution Control Board not to require any further disinfecting. Let's hope that is not an illustration of the District's priorities going forward.

Additionally, the colossal Deep Tunnel project may finally be nearing completion. Throughout the history of the city, as more and more areas became paved, rainwater had less surface area to be absorbed into, and therefore flooding in the city increased. In the early 1970s, the city embarked on an ambitious project to address the flooding problem by building and extensive series of tunnels and reservoirs. 35 years and $3 billion later, the District is still digging more and bigger tunnels and reservoirs, yet the city continues to be plagued by flooding after severe rainstorms, perhaps worse than ever. The Deep Tunnel project now consists of over 100 miles of tunnels, up to 30 feet in diameter and 150 to 300 feet underground. (Take the YouTube tour here.) The final 7.7 miles of the planned 109 miles are now in the final design stage.

So as we finally can see a light at the end of the Deep Tunnel, advocates are urging the district to take a look at alternatives to endlessly expanding its network of pipes and concrete. They recommend "green infrastructure" solutions, such as green roofs, rain gardens, pocket wetlands, native vegetation, and different surfaces for streets and parking lots.

In fact, the recently passed federal stimulus package designates 20% of the funds for water related investments to go to green infrastructure projects. And an Illinois "Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act," sponsored by Representative Elaine Nekritz, and supported by the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology is pending before the General Assembly in Springfield.

Finally, the District is beginning to investigate the possibility of turning its waste into a new source of renewable energy. Sludge from the wastewater system can be processed in digester tanks to capture methane gas, which can then be used to heat office buildings or for industrial processes.

With these near-term challenges and opportunities facing the MWRD, Laurene von Klan would be an outstanding appointment to the board. Last month, she left her position as CEO of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, where she transformed what had once been a dusty old science museum into a vibrant, innovative and leading institution for environmental education in the region.

Prior to that, she led the Friends of the Chicago River for thirteen years, dramatically growing that organization in terms of membership, resources, and influence.

There are other candidates for the spot with green credentials. Mariyana Spyropoulos came up short when she ran for the seat last year, despite an endorsement from the Sierra Club. The Green Party is supporting Nadine Bopp, and offers a platform for greening the MWRD.

But Laurene is the "shovel-ready" candidate. No learning curve here. She has quite literally been up to her knees in the Chicago River, and these issues, for more than 20 years. And her expertise in environmental education would be a boon to the vitally important yet poorly understood MWRD.

The Governor is expected to announce his choice any day now. Let's hope he picks a board member with a deep experience in the issues facing the district, and a demonstrated commitment to protecting and improving the ecology of Chicago's lake and rivers.