On Feb. 22, Marcelino Garcia appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in the March 2018 primary:
Hi, good morning, buenos dias, my name is Marcelino Garcia and I’m running for commissioner for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. I’m originally from Puerto Rico, I went to school at Dartmouth College, and I came to Chicago to go to Northwestern Law School.
I’ve been a public interest law attorney for the past 20 years, having helped people with domestic relations, foreclosure and other civil matters to help them further themselves, and I’ve also been a public servant, having worked at the Chicago Park District, the State of Illinois budget office, Department of Commerce and currently at Cook County Health and Hospital Systems.
I’ve been involved in a lot of aspects of government, as I want to make sure that people get the resources that they need to better their lives and to improve the area where we are.
I think first we need to make sure that we need to address all the lack of regulations coming out of Washington, D.C. and Springfield. We want to make sure that we fight for the environment.
As a priority I also want to make sure that there’s equity at the district. We want to make sure that we have representation from all different backgrounds and people, that the communication is done in a culturally sensitive manner and it actually gets to the people of Cook County. People don’t really know how to access resources at the district and when there’s storm water and floods and storms people really don’t have alert systems to help them deal with some of the repercussions coming from the water. I also want to make sure that the district is innovative, that way instead of completely building they mix in green technologies that better the 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. Marcelino Garcia 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 City of Chicago’s goal to get more people visiting the Chicago River and opening the door to improved and expanded recreational use is linked to the District investment in water quality. Chicago’s participation in establishing policy and infrastructure that takes advantage of our cleaner water resources for public use and enjoyment should be applauded. Yet, after major storm events that are becoming more regular and robust than ever before, sewer overflows are the reason disease causing bacteria remains staggering in our waterways and prohibits direct contact with this resource.
Areas of mutual interest are many. There are natural partnerships to be built around the City of Chicago’s interest in a cleaner, greener river that can attract not only recreational users but commercial and housing opportunities with increased green space. Combined sewer overflows have a potential direct impact on the City and other North Shore local governments who use Lake Michigan as a drinking water resource. Greater coordination between the District, the City of Chicago (including Aldermanic communication resources), and local municipalities along the CAWS to alert the public when combined sewer overflows occur that contaminate our waterways and contribute to less than a safe environment.
Working with city officials, we can develop new practices or build physical controls that will be scripted for the landscaping surrounding the more than 30 outfalls along the river. This is a major source of pollution. More consistent testing with protocols that are reliable and frequent will provide a better measure of the environmental condition.
I believe that the District needs to be more proactive in informing the public of the quality of the river’s waters. The District has a very “official” and informative website, albeit not user friendly. Unfortunately, I would guess it is not regularly visited by the general public due to the lack of exposure to the MWRD. Let’s face it – many believe the MWRD and the City of Chicago Water Department are one and the same. That said, the District should team up with local municipalities and get the word out. Partnership with local government could provide updates about the public risk to contaminants and measures to avoid this risk right by inserts in their local water bill. Links to the MWRD website or quarterly newsletters enclosed in these bills will keep Cook County residents informed.
There are some good models out there, for instance Friends of the Chicago River’s Overflow Action Day Alerts. However, residents need to proactively sign up for those alerts. I will work to create communications mechanisms that reach out to people who may not already be informed or motivated. One model is to work with local media outlets to include information about combined sewer overflows in local weather reports, much as local newspapers currently include the Air Quality Index (AQI) in their weather updates. As information on the AQI helps people with asthma, other respiratory and circulatory issues know when they might want to cut back their outdoor activity, Overflow alerts would help our residents reduce risks from coming into contact with contaminated water. But we should go further than that. We need to make sure residents and businesses understand actions they can take to reduce pollution during Overflow Action Alerts and why it is important.
There are many inexpensive and effective ways to reach citizens, including public transit ad campaigns, use of popular radio shows, working with local municipalities, townships and IDOT to put signage near bridges over key waterways, and others. The Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels Program and its Chicago Water Group is another terrific way to get citizens involved. Again, we need to find ways to move beyond “preaching to the choir” and have MWRD work in partnership with those committed groups to find ways to also get them into schools and other venues to reach larger numbers of people. My background and extensive contacts in the health care and public health fields will prove invaluable in educating those networks, and recruiting them to also spread information to their clients. And of course I will be an advocate for sensitivity to people whose first language is not English.
Running for: Democratic nomination for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District,6-year term
Political/civic background: Democrat
Occupation: Attorney and Director of Community Affairs at CCHHS
Education: JD – Northwestern University School of Law; BA – Dartmouth College
Campaign website: marcelinogarcia.com
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:There is always room for improvement in any cooperative, coordinated response towards storm water management. The District has reached out to leaders within the individual watersheds to prioritize the needed measures to improve flood control, identify infrastructure needed to control overflows and recover environmental conditions. Working with all Cook County local government and elected officials and governmental agencies is paramount in establishing goals and vision that are fair and equitable across the entire service area to appropriately manage our watersheds. The City of Chicago has been instrumental in establishing policy and infrastructure that takes advantage of our water resources for public use and enjoyment. Yet, after major storm events that are becoming more regular and robust than ever before, sewer overflows are the reason disease causing bacteria remains staggering in our waterways.
The MWRD needs to be a bigger and better leader. While there are many governmental agencies that are part of the watershed managing process, the MWRD, as the biggest local agency, should take the lead in this process. The District needs to incorporate the work and vision of the State of Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Army Corps of Engineers, and local governmental agencies into the planning process. By working with public interest groups such as the Sierra Club and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, realistic and endorsable plans can be created.
Throughout my career, I have been able to navigate the hazards of government bureaucracy to make sure that projects get completed. One needs to establish those good and trusting relationships with other players to ensure that the projects can adequately move forward.
In terms of the second part of your question about innovations, one can look at the following experiences from different regions:
Green Solutions: Philadelphia Long Term Control Plan “Green City, Clean Waters”
Philadelphia is an old city with a Combined Sewer System like exists in much of the MWRD area, and they also grapple with population and financial decline. Their Water Department adopted a bold approach to reducing pollutants in the waterways to meet their regulatory requirements through green infrastructure projects (such as “greened acres” designed to capture at least the first inch of runoff that would otherwise occur). After evaluating many alternatives, they determined that, over 45 years, green infrastructure solutions would provide more in environmental, economic and social benefits than they would cost to build, more cost effective than “grey” solutions (meaning smaller rate increases) and with many more co-benefits such as open space and recreation, beautiful street trees, better air quality, avoided asthma attacks, reduction in heat stress deaths, and ecosystem health, beyond meeting their combined sewer overflow mandates. Also, green solutions begin to provide benefits from the beginning of investment, instead of not till after many years, as with built storage solutions. Engineering analysis quantified the contributions of potential solutions on streets, homes, business, open space, alleys/parking, and public facilities. The Department actually set up a process to track results including co-benefits, of early pilots, and make changes in the program accordingly. Acceptance and implementation of the plan requires extraordinary pubic outreach and coordination between many public agencies (from the Building, Housing and Transportation Departments to schools, developers, watershed advocates, architects and landscape architects and many others). Some of the lessons we can learn from Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters program include building a culture that looks at issues holistically, building public support for projects through “co-benefits” that make communities more livable, learning to view rainwater as a useful resource, using carrots as well as sticks (for instance allowing businesses to reduce their stormwater fee by investing in green infrastructure), and using performance metrics to drive learning.
Resource Recovery/Cost Saving Innovation: D.C., New Jersey, San Antonio and Others
Just as MWRD is now experimenting with biodigestion, so are many other wastewater treatment agencies looking at new technologies to help them both reduce waste and increase revenue. And many are turning to public private partnerships to help them. Rather than recommending any particular technology, I would recommend a continuous process of innovation review through partnerships with outside experts.
DC uses a high pressure/high temperature digester to generate methane as well as biosolids using less time, space and energy than other methods, fitting with their constrained acreage. Savings are expected to be $10m a year, more than the cost of bonding the project. The solution that fits their particular constraints was developed through partnering with local universities and international businesses.
A private utility, American Water, is developing NPXpress, a patented process that they claim reduces sewage aeration energy consumption by up to 50 percent and supplemental carbon source by 100 percent. Aeration can account for about half the energy used in a typical treatment plant. This technology is being tested at two wastewater treatment plants in New Jersey. American Water developed the Innovative Development Process (IDP), an open collaboration process with technology companies. This process may not translate directly to a public body but is worth looking at.
The leaders at the San Antonio Water District meet regularly with academic leaders and tech startups. One fruit of this effort is a new digester model, installed at the expense of the private company that efficiently converts biogas to electricity.
There are existing models to build on for expanding collaboration with the private sector. One is WERF (Water Environment Research Foundation), an industry-subscriber funded nonprofit that sponsors research on recovery of resources. A newer, more innovative model is Current, here in Chicago that is pairing utilities, industries, investors, and academia on a range of water challenges and aiming to not just develop, but test and scale solutions. MWRD and the City Water Department are already partners, as is Argonne Labs and several universities, as are private firms and some international organizations.
In general, wastewater treatment agencies tend to be conservative. If elected, I propose to work with the administration and fellow Commissioners to explore all that can be offered by existing partnerships such as WERF and Current, and to reach out to other Districts that have partnered with universities, private companies and others to learn first-hand from their process of collaboration, how to build innovation and openness to ideas into the culture at MWRD.
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 ironic that this problem exists on land owned by the primary protector of the waterways. This is also a troubling issue as a multi-jurisdictional approach is needed and USEPA Region V is stepping back from environmental enforcement as documented by research published in the New York Times, December 10 of this year. Not only have fewer cases been filed in the early days of the Administration (as compared to both the Bush and Obama Administrations), but the amount in dollars sought is smaller. Also, USEPA regional office enforcement staff no longer have the ability to order certain air and water pollution tests without receiving permission from Washington. https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/12/10/us/politics/pollution-epa-regulations.html?_r
In the current federal environment, local government must step up on environmental enforcement. First, MWRD can strengthen its own inspections and enforcement, and also partner with other local governments. Mayor Emmanuel has recognized this priority and is increasing the amount of enforcement staff for environmental issues in the City’s Department of Public Health. Cook County’s newly renamed Department of Environment and Sustainability can also take action against polluters within Cook County outside of the City of Chicago. MWRD can not only enlist the help of these agencies directly, but help publicize to local municipalities, communities and residents that these are resources they can call on if they observe spills, dumping or air emissions. Severe cases can be brought not just to Administrative Hearings within the City or County, but to Circuit Court and to the attention of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
Another way to partner with other governments is to enter into intergovernmental agreements with both the City and County for additional inspectional efforts of these properties. This is something commonly done by state EPAs. For instance, IEPA enters into agreements with both the City of Chicago and Cook County for inspections of solid waste facilities and other businesses. Additional eyes on the properties could catch problems earlier – and put the businesses on notice that they are being more carefully watched. MWRD can and should, of course, step up inspection of these properties by its own staff as well.
Second, MWRD should carefully examine its lease provisions with private entities. As the primary steward of the waterways, it is reasonable that MWRD should hold its lessees to higher standards beyond state and federal laws, and build that into its legal arrangements with them, and back up those standards with teeth such as additional penalties, or even termination in severe cases, if legally possible. It appears that there are currently several dozen sites available for lease, representing an opportunity to make sure lease provisions protecting against this type of abuse are strengthened, beyond what has been put into recent leases. However, many of MWRD’s existing leases are long term, signed years ago, and it will not be practical to change lease language in the near term for many of them.
I believe that if MWRD were to break its lease with one or more violators, that action would send notice to other lessees that they need to be exemplary corporate citizens. In addition, MWRD’s own ordinances should be examined for the legal potential to incorporate, by reference, state and federal pollution laws beyond just the wastewater ordinances that are its primary responsibility. If that is not legally viable, again, the City of Chicago and Cook County both have broad powers and the MWRD should partner with them.
MWRD should also make sure it is appropriately applying its own regulations and fines and that they are strict enough. In addition, examination of the level of fines (primarily, as they affect those not in compliance) should be undertaken. For instance, MWRD’s fines for late submission of compliance schedules, which indicate how those not in compliance are going to come back into compliance, range only from $100 up to 15 days late to $1,000 if more than 45 days late. This is additional time that unpermitted pollutants may be going into the waterways. If over 45 days late, this infraction is also a federal violation of 40 CFR 403.8(f)(2)(viii). Is the MWRD, in those cases, not only fining the businesses but referring them to the IEPA or USEPA for additional enforcement?
MWRD can use the pressure of publicity against polluters as well. The public reports on MWRD’s website of businesses not in compliance are a start, but those reports are several years behind.
Chicagoland has a long history of industrialized waterways and the transition to a 21st Century economy. Waterways are the center of new revitalization rather than the backyard or alley, is not always a smooth one. “Dirtier” industries provide jobs and have a place if they act appropriately as good corporate citizens, but the place needs to be appropriate as well.
MWRD recently leased a portion of its properties in downstate Fulton County to the IL Department of Natural Resources for outdoor recreation. It has similar leases with the Chicago Park District for parks, Skokie Park District for a sculpture park and rowing center, Trinity Christian College for a sports field and green infrastructure, Cook County Forest Preserves for bike trails, Evanston for Ladd Arboretum, and for the Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens in Palos Heights, among others. I would like to see more of this type of arrangement. If sites are leased to private entities, the MWRD should make sure it is getting fair market value, which should encourage new and emerging uses for the land, given the increasing value of riverside property. Espousing publicly a bold vision of what our waterways can become in the future will help ease that transition. In the long run, in addition to active vigilance and enforcement, this is the best means to protect our precious waterways against polluters.
RELATED ARTICLES: Marcelino Garcia
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:The Watershed Management Ordinance is a considerable document that has been developed after years of scientific research, input and collaboration with the watersheds local municipality and NGO leadership with vested interest in this environmental protection effort.
My critique lies within the regulatory oversight of the ordinance. To rely upon one agency and in some instances one department head of this agency to determine whether remedies for deficiency of this ordinance are warranted deserves closer insight. Article 14, Section 1405 allows for action by any elected official, officer or agent of the District to be representative of the District in determination of discrepancy is too broad based, deserving of tighter language and action. Board members of the District are not trained to make these decisions and should not be given cover under this language.
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:The MWRD Board is elected county wide by popular vote. Credentials of the candidates are presented to the media and promoted throughout county’s constituency through political propaganda and advertising in order to let the voters decide on the candidate’s eligibility.
I believe it is the individual board members responsibility to become as well versed as possible on the corporate purpose of this agency. In addition, in order to vote in an educated manner on issues brought before the Board by order of the Executive Director; it is once again the responsibility of the board member to gather all information necessary to make an informative decision.
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:By the end of the century, temperatures in Illinois are expected to increase by 7 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The effects of climate change on our region range from heat-related deaths, increases in diseases and pests, freeze-thaw and flooding, more and heavier extreme rain events with massive economic losses ($2 Billion documented damages in the metro region between 2007-2014) punctuated by droughts threatening our local food supply, disruption of business supply chains, less ice and possibly more evaporation from Lake Michigan stressing our drinking water supply, and severe challenges for our native plants and animals. These changes challenge our infrastructure, our economy, our ecosystem and natural resources, and our vulnerable populations such as the elderly, those with lower incomes, and who do not speak English as a first language. The MWRD must not only protect and make more resilient its own assets and operations, but can play a key role in helping all our communities mitigate and adapt to climate change.
First, sewage treatment plants are especially vulnerable to flooding as they are in low lying areas near water, their operations can be affected by periods of low flow as well as high flow into the sewers, and they use large amounts of energy and so are vulnerable to power disruptions. We should do everything we can to make sure MWRD’s critical operations are ready for the challenges. And too often, infrastructure plans are built on rainfall and temperature predictions that mirror past decades, and do not change with the latest thinking about the future with climate change – we should not make that mistake.
Many systems, from electrical grids to disaster response, are moving away from highly centralized systems to decentralized, networked systems that provide more redundancy and resilience when disasters strike. This is exactly what green infrastructure, at all scales from regional (such as could be provided by MWRD’s extensive landholdings along our waterways) to neighborhood to individual properties, could provide. We need a whole new more expansive way of thinking about our wastewater treatment system. Green infrastructure not only supplements the “grey” system for flood control and cleaning wastewater, but can provide a host of other benefits, from recreation, beautification, and cleaner air, to make our communities more livable. This makes more economic sense than “siloed” investments in these purposes by agencies that don’t talk with each other.
Second, MWRD directly affects how water shapes our region’s livability, economy and ecosystems. MWRD should be the leader in building strategies to mitigate heat and flooding while encouraging development. MWRD can develop watershed and stormwater master plans that, in concert with local communities, identify needed improvements. MWRD can help communities plan to establish flow paths for water in case of flooding, that helps protect critical transportation routes. MWRD should consider encouragement of applying floodplain management requirements to areas larger than the traditional areas. It is difficult for accurate flood mapping by the Army Corps of Engineers, a lengthy and expensive process, to keep up with changing conditions.
Street trees, green infrastructure at all scales should be a priority on MWRD’s own land and encouraged on private land by MWRD ordinances, funding and technical assistance. It is estimated that three million trees have been lost to the Emerald Ash Borer alone, and restoring and expanding our tree cover (which not only helps cool us but helps absorb water when it rains) should be a major priority.
Third, MWRD can help communities fight the effects of climate change. The agency should play a leadership role in providing the best information on flood prediction, green infrastructure, infrastructure design standards and water-friendly design standards to communities and businesses. MWRD can provide financing and technical assistance in development green infrastructure and onsite storage of floodwaters. These practices can also be designed to make our ecosystems more diverse and support native and helpful plants and animals. MWRD can be a source of research and piloting of new technologies and practices in this area, much more easily than smaller local governments which could benefit from the education. MWRD can advocate for needed changes at the state level, such as continued progress in opening up the State Revolving Fund to applications for green as well as grey infrastructure. MWRD should be active in promoting conservation of water use, as well, as all water systems are connected, and should be treated comprehensively to get the most benefit.
MWRD should become a major actor in building climate literacy and decision-making skills among the region’s municipalities, businesses and communities, especially community-based organizations which work with the most vulnerable among us. MWRD can partner with other organizations through coalitions such as the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative spearheaded by the Metropolitan Planning Council, through becoming active in regional organizations such as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, and in many other ways. And MWRD should become a leader in its own right in coordinating with other agencies across the region.
And finally MWRD can mitigate its own contributions to climate change by reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. From ensuring its operations are as energy efficient as possible to innovative technologies that reduce landfilled waste to use of “cool roofs” on its buildings to adopting employment practices that encourage commute by public transportation, bike and walking, MWRD can be a good citizen and set an example. MRWD facilities can increase use of renewable energy, and even consider hosting community solar, which allows people and businesses who can’t put solar on their own roofs, because they rent, don’t have the right roof configuration or simply can’t afford the up-front investment, to benefit from renewable energy’s utility bill savings by subscribing to systems built where there is land. Many local governments including Cook County and Chicago have joined campaigns such as #WeAreStillIn, to show the world that despite the US threat to withdraw from the Paris Accord on Climate Change, local communities are carrying on the fight. MWRD should too.
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:Several decades of building grey infrastructure such as the Deep Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) shows us that we can never dig fast enough to stay ahead of the flooding problem. We need to take a One Water approach with a comprehensive look at all the natural and manmade water systems in the regions and how they interact and are affected by a wide range of human actions and policies. While not ruling out the expansion of reservoirs to widen water retention, green infrastructure is an integral part of the approach. Green infrastructure contributes to the resilience of the region in the face of increasingly severe weather (locally severe events that overwhelm community infrastructure) due to climate disruption. Green infrastructure has a wealth of co-benefits for our communities; from places for recreation, habitats for native flora and fauna, air pollutant filtration, cleaning water that returns to streams and rivers, flood reduction, beautification, and groundwater recharge – just to name a few. It can also be cost effective per unit of storm water retention.
I believe that green infrastructure should be approached at all scales – individual properties, neighborhoods, municipalities and regions/watersheds. With its wide geographic reach and engineering depth, MWRD is ideally situated to be a leader on these issues. The rain barrel program, and the MWRD’s partnership with organizations such as Openlands on turning asphalt schoolyards into green spaces, are good starts, but they are not enough as we need to consider green infrastructure beyond individual properties. I would like to see the MWRD take a more comprehensive approach and do more projects like the comprehensive stormwater planning project it recently undertook with the Village of Robbins. This is also a great way for MWRD, with its strong tax base, to contribute to strengthening some of our underserved communities as well.
QUESTION: What more should the MWRD be doing to prevent invasive species from moving into and through Chicago area waterways?
ANSWER:During the last couple of decades, invasive species have markedly changed the Great Lakes ecosystem. The changes have begun to affect the economy, health and well-being of the people that rely on these waters for food, water and recreation. Once these species have established themselves within an ecosystem, it is extremely difficult to control their expansion.
Here in Cook County, we have been plagued by Asian Carp who are in the Illinois Rivers, connected to the Great Lakes by way of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. This evasive species pose the biggest immediate threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem.
An electric barrier has been placed in the waterway, designed to repel the fish and stop the upstream movement of these carp toward Lake Michigan. It has not been 100% effective as a four-year-old Asian Carp was found in the Chicago waterway, this past June, near Lake Michigan. The only way known for the carp to have gotten there was for someone to put it there or evasion of the 3 electric barriers constructed in the Canal to stop them.
If separation of the Chicago/DesPlaines/Calumet river watershed from Lake Michigan is the most effective measure to keep the Asian Carp and any other invasive species from the waters of our Great Lakes, I would support it.
QUESTION: What do you see as the MWRD’s role in controlling litter in our waterways?
ANSWER:As one of the primary guardians of the Chicago area waterways, MWRD can play a key role in controlling litter. Litter is not only unsightly, but harms water quality, harms wildlife, makes riverside property less pleasant (and less valuable), and discourages people from recreating on or near the river.
Litter can be attacked in many ways.
Direct littering can be discouraged from the shores, bridges and boats at a minimum through public education and enforcement. This is a multijurisdictional effort.
MWRD should also support cleanup campaigns through corporate partnerships and partnerships with nonprofits. Cleanups not only help remove existing litter, but help create an environment in which more people are aware of the negative effects of littering and it is less socially acceptable to do so.
Friends of the Chicago River, the Chicago Park District, Sierra Club and the Forest Preserves of Cook County host cleanup days or volunteer stewardship days in and near the waterways. MWRD should help promote these activities and connect these efforts both to new corporate sponsors and to traditionally underserved communities such as people who do not speak English as a first language, especially young people, to help broaden not only the direct cleanup efforts, but the constituency for the waterways as a whole.
The Shedd Aquarium has expanded its work on cleaning up the Great Lakes to include work days along the South Branch of the Chicago River. MWRD should work with this and other respected nonprofits whose membership base spans far broader than those in the CAWS area, to expand these efforts. The Chicago Area Waterways System’s health is key to the health of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.
Other groups such as Urban Rivers, which is creating floating gardens off the east side of Goose Island, use river beautification and habitat enhancement to educate the community about the viability and potential future of the river. MWRD should seek more such specific place-based partnerships in different communities and consider very small seed grants for equipment and technical assistance.
Litter comes to the waterways through many channels, including land pollution. Unfortunately, with combined sewer overflows, much of what we dump onto our streets, parking lots, and vacant lots ends up in the river. (And even if there is not too much rain, litter travels through storm drains to water treatment plans where it adds to costs.) People don’t think about where it will end up, and that with CSO’s their litter could end up not only making the river unsightly and unhealthy, but possibly even Lake Michigan, the source of their drinking water. A good public education campaign could help people visualize their McDonald’s wrappers, and worse, coming out of their tap!
And one of the best ways to combat litter in the long run is to make the river more visible, and more visited. People are much less likely to harm that which they love. Encouraging people to visit and play on the river changes minds. It also helps build the case for more investments in cleaning up the river and in adding recreational facilities. The Clean Water Act requires that the more a waterway is used for recreation, the cleaner it needs to be. And the more visitors there are, the better the business case for new investments in boat launches, fishing piers and the like. It is a virtuous cycle.
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