Troy Hernandez, PhD
Running for: Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District
Political party affiliation: Green Party
- 4 years on the Pilsen Academy LSC
- 8 years of environmental justice work
- Co-organizer for the Chicago R User Group
- NASA Frontier Development Lab AI Mentor
Occupation: Data Scientist/Executive Architect; IBM
- BS in Mathematics; UIC, 2006
- BA in Philosophy; UIC, 2006
- MS in Statistics/Game Theory; UIC, 2008
- PhD in Statistics/Machine Learning; UIC, 2013
Campaign website: troyhernandez.com/
The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent nominees for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the Chicago area. Troy Hernandez submitted the following responses:
1. Would it make sense for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to consolidate and manage the water systems of struggling municipalities that can’t afford to make upgrades? Please explain.
Some may not know that there are parts of Cook County that aren’t in the MWRD. That’s why the Cook County Stormwater Management Plan, adopted in 2007, “requires the preparation and adoption of a countywide stormwater management plan.” Furthermore, in 2014 the plan “amend[ed] the District’s statutory authority to allow for acquisition of flood-prone properties and to plan, implement, finance, and operate local stormwater management projects.”
Therefore, the law allows for such a proposal, but does not require it. If I were running “struggling municipalities that can’t afford to make upgrades” I would welcome the MWRD’s help. The question is: Do we in the MWRD want to help them?
Water doesn’t care about district or county or municipal boundaries. It’s going to flow where it’s going to flow. If our neighbor is struggling, then that’s going to impact us too. We literally sink or swim together. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have stormwater managed in our region to the best of our society’s ability. Presuming the MWRD and these other municipalities can come to an equitable agreement, this is a no-brainer.
2. Should the MWRD move out of its headquarters at 100 E. Erie St. to put that valuable property back on the tax rolls? Why or why not?
Given the pandemic, now does not appear to be the most opportune time to liquidate the MWRD’s commercial real estate investments. Commercial real estate research firm Real Capital Investments recently stated that, “As the U.S. slipped into recession in March 2020, commercial real estate investment plummeted.”
Any time in the last 5 years would’ve been a better time to sell from a cash value perspective. That said, no one knows what the market will look like in the coming years and I wouldn’t be opposed to selling at a better time. That will maximize the value of the property to taxpayers.
3. What has the MWRD learned from the pandemic? Should some employees work remotely permanently? Can the district manage with fewer employees?
As someone who has been working from home (WFH) for the last 4 years, I can tell you that my quality of life and job satisfaction has significantly improved, but that’s not just anecdotal — it’s cost effective and better for the environment to have people work from home.
Xerox, for example, has allowed employees to work from home for the last 30 years, and in 2015 they stated that it saves them $10 million a year. According to the EPA, employee commuting is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
So while any transition to a remote setting will face difficulties, if employees, employers and our planet all benefit, I’m on board.
4. This year, the Chicago area experienced its wettest May ever — for the third year in the row. Has that changed your thinking about how the district handles storm water? Would you support the use of MWRD property to absorb stormwater?
MWRD engineer Kevin Fitzpatrick was quoted in a fantastic Slate article last year saying, “It’s now clear that this 50-year, multibillion-dollar project (Deep Tunnel) will not be sufficient to stop flooding in Chicago.”
The author goes on: “The congested network of neighborhood sewers in Chicago and its suburbs—local roads leading to the Deep Tunnel highway—also remain an unresolved issue… the Deep Tunnel is helpless to empty undersized sewers battling against supersize storms and sprawl... Even the system’s original engineers knew that its potential to solve neighborhood flooding would be limited by local infrastructure.”
That’s why I proposed back in February that, “As an expert on data and artificial intelligence, I will bring my technical skills to bear on issues within the MWRD. As commissioner, I will connect the dots between flooding and necessary infrastructure improvements.” I’m happy to see that some of my opponents have reversed course from their WTTW statements and are now echoing my calls for more data and analytics to help prioritize our sewer investments where they are most needed.
Lastly, the Slate article points out that other cities like Milwaukee and Philadelphia are taking a different approach. “If Chicago built a bathtub, Philadelphia is trying to transform itself into a sponge with park space, street trees, and permeable pavement... the MWRD has committed to creating just 10 million gallons of green infrastructure capacity under its EPA consent decree. Compare that to... Milwaukee, [which] now believes its green infrastructure will, by 2035… hold up to 740 million gallons of rain where it falls.”
Would I support the use of MWRD property to absorb stormwater? That’s kind of a trick question. The MWRD already does this. And while the MWRD is touted as being the second largest landowner in Cook County, its 9,500 acres represent less than 1% of the area in Cook County. A look at the maps also suggest that this land is not evenly distributed throughout the district. In short, we’re going to need a lot more green infrastructure outside of just the MWRD property.
This begs another question: Why is the MWRD so lethargic in its utilization of green infrastructure? Incentives. When you have big engineering companies making big campaign contributions to MWRD candidates, you get big expensive engineering solutions at the MWRD like the Deep Tunnel. If there were green infrastructure companies handing out big campaign contributions, the Democratically controlled commission might think harder about these alternative solutions. Fortunately for voters, unlike the Democrats, my fellow Green candidates and I don’t take corporate campaign contributions. Our goal is to serve the people of the district, not to act like typical Madigan Democrats by leeching taxpayers for their campaign contributors.
5. Could the district play a role in monitoring wastewater for signs of disease outbreaks? Please explain.
I’m a published author in peer-reviewed publications where I described efficient algorithms to classify biological viruses. Half of my PhD was funded by a National Science Foundation and Department of Defense’s joint program called Algorithms for Threat Detection. It was at those conferences where some of the first algorithms were presented for detecting biological agents in environmental DNA (eDNA) samples.
This is somewhat of another trick question as this is something that the MWRD is already doing as reported in the Chicago Tribune:
“Stemloop is in the early stages of a coronavirus pilot project with … the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District…”
In short, given that individual testing has significantly ramped up in the United States since the start of the pandemic, this is no longer a pressing issue for this pandemic. However, should this research project continue, it could be helpful in detecting the next biological threat thereby helping us to avoid the next pandemic.
6. This spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it essentially is allowing polluters to stop reporting violations of federal regulations if, in the polluter’s view, the coronavirus is to blame. What should be MWRD’s response to that? What role should MWRD assume in making sure that municipalities have strong and enforceable National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits?
I’ve been an active environmental justice advocate in Pilsen for almost a decade now. I am a member of the coordinating committee of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO).
When we were trying to shut down the coal plants it was repeatedly brought up that the Fisk and Crawford plants were grandfathered into the Clean Air Act. This essentially legalized their pollution. Our response to this was to push for them to be shut down via the proposed Chicago Clean Power Ordinance pursuant to our home rule powers. While this ordinance never passed, it created a political climate where the alderman and mayor were forced to respond to the community’s concerns.
I’m not a lawyer, but assuming the MWRD also has home rule powers, this is the strategy I would take. We could mirror the national permit system and continue enforcement as usual. Of course, this all assumes that this is not another trick question and that the MWRD hasn’t already implemented this system ;)
7. In July, Chicagoans swamped City Hall with complaints about flooding. Also, new flood maps indicate that more areas of the city and region now are prone to flooding. What is your plan for responding to this growing problem? Should TARP be the Long-Term Control Control Plan for all municipalities?
With climate change, Chicagoland is already seeing an increase in severe weather events like we saw in May and July of this year. Climate change will continue to affect our lives and unfortunately not even the TARP program can solve flooding by itself, despite its evident benefits.
As the Sun Times noted there was a pilot program in Chatham to install green infrastructure that was delayed by the pandemic. Let me tell you about pilot programs in Chicago.
Back in 2014, I was giving a talk about our two neighborhood metal shredders. Afterwards, a man introduced himself and explained there was lead in Chicago’s water. This man, Miguel Del Toral, an EPA employee, went on to become the Flint whistleblower. Before he blew the whistle in Flint he blew the whistle in Chicago. Just like he did in Flint, he leaked his preliminary report to the local press in 2011.
How did Mayor Emanual react to Miguel’s rather obvious findings that running water through unstable lead pipes puts lead in our water? Rahm ignored him for 4 years. After Flint, our problem couldn’t be ignored. Did Rahm immediately call for replacing Chicago’s lead service lines? No. Rahm wanted pilot programs. Rahm wanted more tests. Rahm claimed it wasn’t really a problem. Rahm did everything he could do to not deal with this inconvenient problem; much like he did with the infamous Laquan McDonald tape. I decided to take direct action and organized PERRO volunteers to hand out lead water filters to affected families in Pilsen in an effort to shame the mayor and alderman into acting. The lesson was learned.
The dangers of lead in water have been well understood for centuries. It was understood specifically in Chicago since 2011. Yet, acting on the problem was politically inconvenient. So we got pilots and tests to delay meaningful action.
Similarly, green infrastructure is well understood. Here’s a 13-year old cost benefit analysis.
It appears as if the MWRD commissioners find it politically inconvenient to their campaign contributors to not have the solution to our flooding be a big engineering solution… so we get delays with pilots. We get small scale, token actions. Just like with the lead in our water.
What are we waiting for? Our neighbors can’t wait for next spring’s torrential downpours to flood their basements again. We have solutions! We need action! Now!
8. How can the MWRD manage its land holdings better?
Besides converting unused MWRD land to green infrastructure for absorbing stormwater, the leasing program and state laws need to be rewritten to allow for more dynamic use of the property by local governments and less usage by politically-connected known polluters.
The story of Olympic Oil leasing large parcels of MWRD land at sub-market rates while polluting the waterway is enraging. We should end these “toxic tenant” leases and replace the paved, polluting space with rain-absorbing infrastructure.