The Chicago Sun-Times sent 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.
Green party candidate Karen Roothaan is seeking a 6-year term and submitted the following responses to our questionnaire:
What skills and qualities will you look for in hiring a new MWRD general superintendent?
Roothaan: Technical expertise, integrity, and the ability to consider a problem from multiple points of view.
Should large landowners be billed for how much water runs off their properties?
Roothaan: Eventually, yes, but this needs to be phased in over time. In addition to establishing a fee structure, the MWRD should provide technical assistance to these landowners so that they can reduce their runoff.
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?
Roothaan: It’s hard to know what should have been done differently when we cannot find out what really happened.
Who is Karen Roothaan?
Her political/civic background
My civic involvement started in Southeast Chicago, where I am a co-founder of two community vegetable gardens and an urban forestry project.
Lecturer, Purdue University
M.S. Mathematics, Brown University
Campaign website: https://www.mwrd-ilgp.org/
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?
Roothaan: We need better storm water standards because we are expecting more extreme storms with a higher volume of water.
We also need a strategy for adapting existing construction to the higher volumes of water now expected, and we need to recognize the unplanned opportunities for storm water management in vacant and abandoned areas.
Should the MWRD’s disinfection system be expanded? Is cost a concern?
Roothaan: Yes, and yes. At this point, I recommend looking at the recent track record of the relatively new disinfection procedures in place at the O’Brien (UV light) and Calumet (chlorination) treatment plants, before making further decisions. We know that at some time we have to start disinfecting the effluent from Stickney, but because it is such a large plant (handling about half the total volume treated) it will be costly.
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.
What new ideas would you bring to the district?
Roothaan: In the immediate future, I would like to see the MWRD partner with big box home improvement retailers such as Home Depot, Menard’s, and Lowe’s, to bring storm water management into the marketplace. There are many other places for water to go besides our sewers, but the information is not widely accessible to the general public.
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?
Roothaan: It should not be acceptable, and I will not accept such donations.
Should there be an independent and adequately funded inspector general’s office at the MWRD?
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?
Roothaan: The MWRD must contribute to national and state-wide conversations on the need for an effective climate policy, because every time we have an extreme storm, with floods and combined sewer overflows, we see how our changing climate means we need to work harder just to stay in place. Any data that the MWRD can contribute to help governments understand the true cost of ignoring climate change is vital.
This data needs to include not only the frequency of CSO’s and flooding, but also the financial costs.
How do you foresee the MWRD eliminating all combined sewer overflows?
Roothaan: I do not foresee that happening, but there are many ways to reduce the total volume of water in the system during a storm. Educating the general public about reducing unnecessary water use during storms, distributing rain barrels, and encouraging landscape and garden practices that retain or slow the flow of water are all examples of individual-scale strategies.
One the neighborhood scale, we should have more permeable alleys, and local parks should include demonstration rain gardens and bioswales.
Ultimately, to reduce combined sewer overflows to an acceptable level, we need to drastically change how we manage storm water. This means changes in urban planning, but it also means looking for unplanned opportunities, such as using vacant and abandoned areas as green zones where storm water is naturally absorbed.
Is the MWRD responsible for combined sewer discharges by Chicago and other municipalities?
Roothaan: In part, yes.
Is the MWRD doing enough to buy up buildings in flood plains to reduce the cost and damage of flooding?
Roothaan: Probably not.
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.