Democratic candidate for MWRD commissioner: Kari K. Steele

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Kari Steele, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District candidate and incumbent. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

On Feb. 22, Kari K. Steele appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked her why she’s running for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in the March 2018 primary:

Hi my name is Commissioner Kari Steele I’m a commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. My background is that I am a chemist, I basically worked as a water chemist at both the Jardine Water Purification Plant and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District as a lab tech, a water sampler and a water chemist. My community engagement is that I’ve just basically always been involved in my community, I grew up going to community meetings as just a part of my monthly routine, I’m past chairman of the Cook County Young Democrats, past chairman of the 6th Ward Young Democrats, and I stay involved in my community now that I’m older, as a constituent and an elected official.

A specific need with the district that is a priority of mine would be definitely to keep promoting the need for our stormwater management, pushing green infrastructure, encouraging STEM careers to make sure we maintain a clean water environment and to protect our primary water resource which is Lake Michigan.

Causes that I would like to highlight in my campaign would be protecting workers, promoting fiscal responsibility and transparency and maintaining a clean water environment.

The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates seeking nominations for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the Chicago area. Kari K. Steele submitted the following responses to our questionnaire:

QUESTION: The new Riverwalk has made the Chicago River a popular recreation destination, but surveys show that the river’s water still contains high levels of bacteria from sewage. What further steps should the MWRD take to improve the quality of the river’s water? Is the public being sufficiently informed on this matter, particularly as it relates to public health?

ANSWER:The MWRD has a mission to “protect the health and safety of the public in its service area & improve the quality of water in watercourses in its service area”, with the Chicago River being described as the second shoreline of the city, it’s a priority for the MWRD to make sure people participating in recreational activities in the Chicago River are exposed to safe water. Since disinfection came into service at O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant and Calumet Water Reclamation Plant data demonstrates the final step to our treatment process removes more than 95% of impurities and reduces pathogenic bacteria in the water being released into Chicago waterways. Simply stated, the effluent released from MWRD treatment plants is often cleaner than the water of the stream. The MWRD collects monthly water samples at 28 locations throughout Cook County waterways and analyzes the water for several chemical and biological contaminants. The MWRD also operates continuous monitors, which collect hourly DO oxygen, specific conductance measurements, and temperature readings at 22 locations throughout the waterways in the MWRD service area. The initiatives we’ve taken in protecting our waterways have resulted in cleaner waterways and a surge in recreational activity and economic development. However, like all natural bodies of water,our river contains wildlife and bacteria. Although water quality is improved, many hazards exist on the waterways due to boat traffic, currents, temperature and lack of ingress and egress to name a few. To further help improve the quality of the river’s water MWRD has skimmer boats that go out Monday-Friday from April to October, but if there is a Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) that occurs the boats will go out within 24 hours to clean up (even on the weekend). Currently the District informs the public about combined sewer overflows via the MWRD website, with public signage and a free optional notification system that provides subscribers with an e-mail notification or text alert of CSO events.

Kari K. Steele

Running for: Democratic nomination for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District,6-year term

Political/civic background:West Side Black Elected Officials, 2017 – Present

The 27th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, 2016 – Present

Southside Democracy for America, 2016 – Present

MLI, 2016

Edgar Fellows Program, 2014

South Shore International College Prep High School Advisory Committee, 2014

8th Ward Regular Democratic Organization Women’s Auxiliary Council, Member

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Member

Chatham Avalon Park Community Council, Member

Sierra Club, Member

Society of Cosmetic Chemists, 2004 – 2013

The 6th Ward New Democrats, Member

Illinois Women’s Institute of Leadership (IWIL), 2007 – Present

Chairman of the 6th Ward Young Democrats, 2004 – 2011

Member of the Young Democrats of America, 2005 – 2011

Treasurer of the Young Democrats of Cook County, June 2008 – June 2009

Chairman of the Young Democrats of Cook County, June 2009 – June 2010

Occupation: Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner

Education:Bachelor of Sciences – Chemistry Pre-Med (Minor-Biology) (August 1997) Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans, Louisiana

Campaign website:

QUESTION: Could the MWRD do a better job of working with other government agencies in the Chicago area to manage watersheds? If so, how would you make that happen? What innovations at other sewage districts across the country would you like to bring to Chicago?

ANSWER:The MWRD currently has a good working relationship with various local governments in the Chicago region to manage watershed. We host open meetings, study sessions, or special meetings when there is a widespread topic to discuss and I have a representative attend all watershed/stormwater meetings I’m invited to. Often times, our experienced staff will meet with representatives from municipalities to collaborate and assist with projects by donating our time, professional expertise, and opinions to make sure we all continue to protect our waterways.

MWRD is a leader in the wastewater industry with our innovative projects. We set the trends when it comes to “recovering our resources & transforming water,” people travel from all over the world to visit our facilities and talk to our professionals and we will do the same to gain knowledge from others. In Aarhus, Denmark, all three of the Aarhus Water’s Waste Water Treatment Plants are net energy positive and The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) has a goal set toward sustainable operations. MWRD is currently designing and operating treatment processes with an eye towards energy efficiency, and working with Aarhus Water to reach this accomplishment; I support us continuing this collaboration. Learning about the advanced controls and sensors they are using (in Denmark) will help us achieve our goal of energy neutrality on a much larger scale. The ability to reduce energy consumption while increasing energy production to the point that The Stickney Water Reclamation Plant (SWRP) produces as much or more renewable energy than it consumes will provide a return on this investment and benefit Cook County taxpayers and our environment. The SWRP is the largest wastewater treatment plant and has the largest nutrient recovery facility in the world. However, in the future I hope to see SWRP become the largest energy neutral reclamation plant in the world.

QUESTION: The MWRD is Cook County’s second largest landowner. The Sun-Times and the BGA have reported on troubling pollution seeping or otherwise being emitted from MWRD properties in recent years. What more can be done to ensure that companies leasing land are good environmental stewards?

ANSWER:It is important to the MWRD that companies leasing our land are good environmental stewards. When a tenant’s lease expires the property has to be in the same condition it was in when the lease first commenced. In addition, tenants also have to lodge with the MWRD an environmental site restoration/remediation bond. To further ensure that companies leasing land are good environmental stewards, we could explore ensuring that our tenants are respecting the environment by requiring land sampling and testing more often and instilling a strict timeframe for cleanup and eviction if necessary.


QUESTION: Do you support the changes made in the revised Watershed Management Ordinance? What would you have included? What would you have left out?

ANSWER:I support the changes in the revised Watershed Management Ordinance (WMO) because MWRD staff communicated and collaborated with interested parties, in addition to receiving and addressing public comments for at least five months. The WMO is a necessary component to the Cook County Storm Water Management Plan and the MWRD considered numerous factors in its creation like inappropriate floodplain uses and development increasing flood risk, the role of wetlands in flood storage, riparian environments reducing flow rates, and stormwater retention requirements for new developments, to name a few.

I support the staff prepared and board approved WMO, because as the County grows and the weather climate changes we need to protect Cook County residents against flooding. The Board of Commissioners can vote to make amendments to the ordinance when necessary. I plan to continue to keep the lines of communication open with all municipalities and address concerns or public comments as they arise.

QUESTION:Do you think the board of commissioners is sufficiently knowledgeable about the corporate purpose of the MWRD? Is the board properly informed on issues that come before it?

ANSWER:Yes, I think MWRD Commissioners are knowledgeable about the corporate purpose of MWRD and are properly informed on issues that come before us. It is our responsibility to research issues in order to have the ability to make informed decisions in the Board Room. We are fortunate to have a professionally diverse Board to make it easier to collaborate with each other if we have questions about an area that is not our strong suit. Like most jobs, you gain more knowledge with experience and that is why I’m seeking to be re-elected, because it is important to continue the progress that has been made during my 6-year term as a MWRD Commissioner. As a chemist and environmentalist with experience working in the field & laboratory as a water chemist, I offer unique attributes that are essential assets to the talented members of the Board at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Greater Chicago. My previous experience makes me uniquely qualified to contribute a broader knowledge that is directly related and relevant to the vast services provided by MWRD. In this capacity, I also contribute to the professional diversity at the MWRD.

QUESTION: Because of heavy rain, billions of gallons of sewage-tainted water recently were dumped into Lake Michigan. This happens almost every year, but it is not good. Climate change, bringing stronger storms, will only make the problem worse. What would you do, as a commissioner, to limit the impact of climate change on our local waterways and our drinking water?

ANSWER:Provided Mother Nature is an unpredictable source of rainfall, it is important that I continue to be a strong and present representative of the MWRD throughout Cook County in order to continue my efforts in helping decrease Combined Sewage Overflows by educating and familiarizing communities throughout Cook County about the various options of green infrastructure they can install at home. I have also created a video and audio Public Service Announcement that provides consumers, of all ages, with useful water conservation tips that can be used during Overflow Action Days and heavy downpours to help conserve our sewer systems at critical times. I propose to increase the number of schools participating in the Space to Grow Program, reinstating the MWRD Rain Barrel Program, and increase the promotional communications channels that provide information about green infrastructure and water conservation.

QUESTION: With the first phase of the McCook Reservoir project now online, what next should the MWRD do to reduce the threat of sewage overflows? Do you support alternatives to maximizing the capacity of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan?

ANSWER:Once complete, the Tunnel and Reservoir Project (TARP) including the four tunnel systems and the three reservoirs will have a total combined capacity of 20.55 billion gallons of water. There are less combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in 2017 than previous years, and I predict 2018 will have less and hopefully none resulting from McCook Reservoir going online December 2017. If we embrace various options of Green infrastructure and water conservation to compliment TARP we can decrease flooding resulting from unpredictable heavy downpours. I advocate on the Board at MWRD to increase the use of green infrastructure and minimize concrete and asphalt surfaces throughout Cook County because I know it can assist with alleviating flooding and CSOs in addition to TARP.

QUESTION: What more should the MWRD be doing to prevent invasive species from moving into and through Chicago area waterways?

ANSWER:The MWRD should collaborate with the Army Corps and other environmental groups to be involved in the process of designing plans for a Chicago Area Waterway system that prevents the transfer of aquatic invasive species while also improving flood control and water quality.

QUESTION:What do you see as the MWRD’s role in controlling litter in our waterways?

ANSWER:The MWRD plays a major role in protecting our waterways by removing litter from our waterways.

Skimmer boats go out Monday-Friday from April to October. To collect debris from our waterways. Constituents are able to report water pollution, water blockages, dumping, odors and other incidents at, on our MWRD APP (MWRD CIR) or by dialing 1-800- 332-3867. I promote the tools we have in place to report litter in our waterways and I would like to see MWRD do more promotions about this service.


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