The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the Chicago area.
Shore, who is seeking a 6-year term, submitted the following responses to our questionnaire:
What skills and qualities will you look for in hiring a new MWRD general superintendent?
Shore: The next executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) should be a visionary leader and exemplary manager. He or she must possess excellent communication skills, both speaking and listening. This individual should have demonstrated ability to work successfully with diverse communities and partners, and in serving a diverse board of commissioners.
Should large landowners be billed for how much water runs off their properties?
Shore: Rather than billing landowners for runoff, I would prefer to develop incentive programs that would encourage landowners to install systems and adopt techniques that reduce runoff. How can we develop a program that rewards innovation and conservation instead of assessing fees? That said, the system of supporting stormwater work by levying taxes based on property values is structurally flawed.
Who is Debra Shore?
Her political/civic background Board Member, Great Lakes Protection Fund (2009 — present), Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership; member and past president of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL; former board member and past chair of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute; former board member, Friends of the Forest Preserves; delegate to Democratic National Convention 2008 and 2012; active member of Niles Township Democratic Organization. Democratic Party of Evanston, Northfield Township Democrats, Cook County Democratic Party Her occupation Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Her education Goucher College, B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, 1974 Johns Hopkins University, Master of Liberal Arts, 1976 Columbia College, Chicago, Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, 1995 Certificate in Executive Education, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 2008 Campaign website: www.debrashore.org
The MWRD has just parted ways with its director, paying a nearly $100,000 settlement package. The public has been told very little about what happened. What should have been done differently?
Shore: Your question is a good one and an important one. Transparency in government is always a good practice. The Board of Commissioners did reach a separation agreement with the executive director and that agreement is a matter of public record. Due to the terms of the separation agreement, both the District and the staff, as well as the previous executive director, are contractually bound not to discuss the terms beyond what is publicly available in the agreement.
What is the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District?
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District guards the safety of our water source (Lake Michigan), protects businesses and homeowners from flooding and operates seven plants to treat industrial and residential wastewater. Its boundary is 883.5 square miles, roughly Cook County – and serves 5.25 million people.
Buildings continue to go up that put more water into combined sewers during storms. Is a stronger storm water management ordinance needed? What would that be?
Shore: Since 2008, the city of Chicago has regulated development and redevelopment for stormwater management purposes within the city limits. The city’s stormwater ordinance and manual have design standards and goals to limit runoff and capture rainwater on site. The Watershed Management Ordinance (WMO) adopted and implemented by the MWRD affects development and redevelopment on parcels of a certain size in the rest of Cook County. Only about 50 of the suburban municipalities have combined sewers.
In my opinion, the WMO as currently written has helped to prevent flooding in Cook County from getting worse even as the region is experiencing rain events of historic magnitude. Many of the negative consequences that were feared and predicted by real estate developers when the WMO was being debated have failed to materialize. However, the WMO on its own, at least as currently written, is not going to solve Cook County’s stormwater management problem. Part of the reason is that the WMO is designed to address development or redevelopment on parcels of a certain size threshold, not to mitigate flooding caused by past development decisions. In other words, we have to do what we can to reduce the likelihood of future flooding while seeking to address current problems.
I’d add that if the WMO isn’t keeping things from getting worse, it definitely needs to be strengthened, and that the WMO may need to be significantly revised in another five years, both because we’ll have a lot of good information on its track record by then, and perhaps to keep up with emerging information about our changing climate. But a good stormwater-management program will consist of both incentives (carrots) and regulations (sticks). Instead of immediately embarking on wholesale revisions to the WMO, it might be more productive for the Board of Commissioners and District staff to think about a program of stormwater management incentives as ambitious as the WMO that can create the conditions for a sustainable and resilient Cook County. Certainly, MWRD should work with municipalities to ensure that building codes, zoning ordinances, and other local regulations don’t present obstacles that keep property owners from making better choices. In short, there are probably a number of things that the District could do that would have as much impact on stormwater as revisions to the WMO would have, and we should probably explore and implement those before we embark on a wholesale revision of the WMO.
Should the MWRD’s disinfection system be expanded? Is cost a concern?
Shore:The principal driver leading to the decision to install disinfection at the O’Brien Wastewater Treatment Plant in Skokie and the Calumet Wastewater Treatment Plant in Chicago was a determination by the Illinois EPA and the Illinois Pollution Control Board that the sections of the Chicago Waterways downstream from those plants were highly suitable for recreational use and were, in fact, being used by canoeists, kayakers, boaters, and fishermen. No similar determination has been made for the section of the Sanitary and Ship Canal downstream from the Stickney treatment plant. That stretch of the Canal is used much more for commercial barge traffic. If recreational use increases, then someday the MWRD may need to add disinfection to the treatment process at Stickney. And, yes, cost is a concern. There are other ways to spend the millions required to disinfect treated wastewater at Stickney that would improve water quality for recreational use and improve habitat for aquatic life.
What new ideas would you bring to the district?
Shore: I have been a strong proponent of resource recovery initiatives, such as phosphorus recovery, reuse of treated wastewater, increased production of renewable energy via biogas generation, and production of high-quality compost from biosolids mixed with wood chips. The Calumet treatment plant needs additional carbon input to function efficiently, so the District purchases carbon to feed into the plant. Why not assess which industrial processes produce carbon in their waste stream (candy manufacturers, food processors, etc.) and recruit such industries to locate in the service area of the Calumet plant, thereby providing carbon via the waste stream? Why not hire a marketer for the District’s compost? (Current District staff do not possess this expertise.) Why not explore a collaboration with the city of Chicago Department of Water Management to subsidize low-flow toilets and installation of water meters, which reduce wastewater flow, and share in the savings? And why not view the sewage plants of the past as the power centers of the future, generating renewable energy, producing beneficial products such as compost and fertilizer, providing water for irrigation and industrial uses? MWRD should be partnering with the economic development departments in the city and county to attract the water-intensive industries of the future to an area close to the treatment plants.
News reports have revealed that MWRD contracts have gone to businesses that have donated to at least one of the district’s commissioners. Is this acceptable? What should the rule be? Would you accept such donations?
Shore: Currently, members of the Board of Commissioners are not bound by any restrictions on campaign contributions beyond those required by the Illinois State Board of Elections. Commissioner Patrick Thompson and I sought to introduce restrictions on contributions from vendors doing business with the District — similar to limits imposed by Cook County — several years ago, but the board president at the time was not interested in pursuing that initiative. I have sought to impose as my own standard the same limits on contributions from companies doing business with the MWRD that members of the Cook County Board follow. I shall endeavor to introduce contribution limits again in my next term.
Should there be an independent and adequately funded inspector general’s office at the MWRD?
Shore: Yes, I support the establishment of an independent Inspector General for MWRD. In fact, I have been advocating for this for some time. As a result of work by me and my staff — having produced a comprehensive white paper, pushed for a public study session to discuss the topic, and organized meetings for colleagues with both the Cook County and city of Chicago offices of Inspector General — I believe the Board of Commissioners may soon support an intergovernmental agreement with the Cook County IG to provide independent oversight services for MWRD. In order to support this effort, I secured a $600,000 commitment in the District’s 2018 budget during budget hearings late last year and have suggested that the budget for 2019 follow guidelines set by the Association of Inspectors General, namely, to allocate .1 percent of the entire organization’s budget (or roughly $1,000,000 for an IG).
Because the MWRD must deal with the impact of extreme rain events, how big a role should it play in lobbying other governments, such as the state or federal governments, on climate issues?
Shore: MWRD has been and should continue to be a leader in devising and implementing ways to make Cook County more resilient in the face of climate change. No question District leadership — both staff and the Board of Commissioners — should promote sound, science-based initiatives and projects in this region and across the nation. MWRD already does this to some extent through its membership (and leadership) in the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and other groups.
How do you foresee the MWRD eliminating all combined sewer overflows?
Shore: Since the Thornton reservoir went online in late November 2015 and the first phase of the McCook Reservoir went online in December 2017, there has been a significant reduction in combined sewer overflows (CSOs). I expect this trend to continue when the Des Plaines TARP system connects to the McCook Reservoir in two years and when the second phase of the McCook Reservoir is completed in 2029. However, the more intense rainstorms afflicting our region are overwhelming the capacity of local sewer systems to convey stormwater in combined systems to the larger interceptors, to the Tunnel system, and to the reservoirs. MWRD must identify the outfalls most likely to experience CSOs and work with municipalities to develop strategies to increase capacity or improve conveyance. Given climate change and a highly urbanized county, I regret to say that I think it is unlikely we will completely eliminate all combined sewer overflows.
Is the MWRD responsible for combined sewer discharges by Chicago and other municipalities?
Shore: MWRD only owns approximately 10 percent of the outfalls in the Chicago area. However, it is the only entity that has a long-term control plan — approved by the EPA and codified in a federal consent decree — that commits to a firm schedule for completing the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan and eliminating combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Someday, other owners of outfalls — the city of Chicago, other municipalities, and some private entities — may be responsible for end-of-pipe treatment, especially if climate change results in storms causing continued CSOs.
Is the MWRD doing enough to buy up buildings in flood plains to reduce the cost and damage of flooding?
Shore: MWRD’s executive director told me a while ago that there are roughly 90,000 dwellings in Cook County located in the floodplain and that the cost of buying up all these buildings would be approximately $2 billion. MWRD has a policy of working in concert with municipalities and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to identify homes that should be removed from the floodplain and to work with willing sellers. That program will continue as long as MWRD has stormwater funding to do so and as long as there are municipalities and homeowners seeking buyouts.
Ahead of the historic 2018 elections, the Sun-Times is teaming up weekly with the Better Government Association, in print and online, to fact-check the truthfulness of the candidates. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.