PI Original Michael Piskur Friday April 20th, 2012, 2:09pm

Illinois Moves Forward On Mandate To Clean Waterways

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) will receive $10 million in state funding to construct new facilities at two existing wastewater treatment plants. Governor Pat Quinn recently announced that the Illinois Jobs Now! capital program will finance nearly half of a $21 million project to disinfect wastewater discharges into the Chicago River and Chicago area waterways.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) will receive $10 million in state funding to construct new facilities at two existing wastewater treatment plants. Governor Pat Quinn recently announced that the Illinois Jobs Now! capital program will finance nearly half of a $21 million project to disinfect wastewater discharges into the Chicago River and Chicago area waterways.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson joined Governor Quinn for a press conference at the Wrigley Global Innovation Center on Goose Island late last week to announce the project.

“The Chicago River is an Illinois treasure that should be clean and safe,” Governor Quinn said. “Cleaning up our waterways will not only improve the quality of life in the Chicago area, but also attract more tourists and residents to Illinois.”

Construction at the wastewater plants commences this fall with completion expected by December 2015. The new disinfection processes will be in place in time for the 2016 recreational season.

”I am committed to establishing the Chicago River as the city’s next recreational frontier, so our residents can enjoy the river as it fosters economic opportunity throughout our city and neighborhoods,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a press release. “I am supportive of all efforts to improve the water quality of the river and move us toward our goals for this wonderful resource.”

Chicago is the only major U.S. city to treat sewage without disinfecting it. The Obama Administration and Illinois officials filed suit claiming this practice is in violation of the Clean Water Act. Last year, the U.S.EPA ordered that portions of the Chicago River, Cal-Sag Channel, and Little Calumet River be cleaned to allow “recreation in and on the water,” which includes swimming and canoeing. The U.S. EPA could, under the Clean Water Act (PDF), could impose more stringent water quality guidelines if state and local officials fail to comply.

“The families and businesses of Chicago know that the river here is a critical part of their lives and their economy. They want clean, healthy waters where they can swim and sail and safely enjoy themselves,” said U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “The EPA has been working closely with Governor Quinn and Mayor Emanuel and all of the local supporters who are committed to restoring their waters and bringing those benefits to the community. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act this year, we’re happy to see the progress that has been made."

As part of a settlement with the U.S. EPA and U.S. Department of Justice, MWRD agreed to invest in green roofs, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure to prevent basement flooding and combined sewer overflows (CSO). Storms producing at least two-thirds of an inch of rain can cause CSO, which discharges sewage and stormwater into Chicago area waterways. These events have sent more than 62 billion gallons of sewage-tainted water into local waterways since 2007. The agreement also calls for the completion of the “tunnel and reservoir plan,” capable of holding approximately 17 billion gallons of sewage and flood water, by 2029.

The Deep Tunnel project is hailed as the $3 billion solution to these kinds of problems, but completion is more than a decade away. In the meantime, state and local officials must find other ways to eliminate pollution in Chicago’s waterways. MWRD promotes the use of rain barrels and other low cost methods for reducing the amount of water that enters the wastewater system during storms, and Chicago is a leader in green infrastructure innovation. While these types of efforts can mitigate CSO, the city’s wastewater system was designed to discharge water into the rivers and, in the case of very heavy storms, into Lake Michigan.

According to the Alliance for the Great Lakes, “heavy storms can lead MWRD to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, Calumet River and North Shore Channel, causing them to flow into Lake Michigan. The result has been the release of billions of gallons of sewage-infested stormwater into the lake, including 11.5 billion gallons during two weather events in 2008; 6.5 billion gallons during one event in 2010; and 2.3 billion gallons during two events in 2011.”

Last May, U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) held a press conference at the North Branch Pumping Station to declare their support of the U.S. EPA's demands.

"Chicago is the last city in America that has not tackled this situation," Durbin said.

MWRD initially said the total cleanup effort would cost $1 billion, while the U.S. EPA put the price at $242 million. The current estimate of $139 million reportedly won't require any tax increases.

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