Candidate name: Cameron “Cam” Davis
Running for: Re-election as Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District
Political party affiliation: Democrat
Political/civic background: Previously served as President Obama’s Great Lakes restoration coordinator for 11 federal departments, including the White House Council on Environmental Quality, EPA, Department of Interior, Department of Homeland Security, and others.
Occupation: Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District
- Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology, JD, Certification in Environmental & Energy Law
- Boston University, BA, International Relations
- New Trier High School
Campaign website: camdavis.org
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. Cameron “Cam” Davis 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.
With so many of our families struggling to make ends meet even before this awful pandemic, yes, the Water Reclamation District should always be looking for ways to save Cook County taxpayers money. Consolidation could help achieve efficiencies and provide relief, especially for communities of color that struggle inequitably.
For stormwater systems, the agency already has authority to serve Cook County. As a commissioner, I proposed in February that communities be allowed to “opt in” to MWRD if they are not currently taking advantage of the District’s flood reduction efforts. A legislative change may be required to add other municipal wastewater systems beyond current borders.
Other major metro areas, like Louisville, Kentucky, have been able to retain jobs while saving taxpayers money through shared services (purchasing, fleet deployment, administrative operations) without fully consolidating organizations.
Consolidation could become even more attractive if Congress could agree to significant infrastructure stimulus funding. Our country faces more than $1 trillion in water infrastructure upgrades according to the American Water Works Association and American Society of Civil Engineers. Overhauling the nation’s water infrastructure used to be an issue of deferred maintenance and bipartisan support. The White House has repeatedly failed to lead the country out of our infrastructure crisis.
It’s beyond debate that water infrastructure upgrades create jobs, boost local economies, and protect public health. After all, if a pipe stops working because of age or freezing weather, backing up wastewater into your property, that’s one more thing neighborhoods have to worry about at a time when they have enough to deal with. This is a bipartisan issue beckoning bipartisan solutions because everyone benefits.
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?
I’m open to this idea, though I predict that there will be a glut of commercial space because of COVID-related telecommuting that may not make this attractive as it might have been in the past. So, until we recover, this could be more of an economic detriment than a benefit to Cook County taxpayers.
3. What has the MWRD learned from the pandemic? Should some employees work remotely permanently? Can the district manage with fewer employees?
MWRD is learning that it needs to adapt and change, as many public utilities can be resistant to doing. While much of the rest of society has been moving toward increased telecommuting over the years, the pandemic is a chance for MWRD to understand that it can do the same; that employees can be as effective, if not more effective, if they avoid grinding through commutes and traffic. Yes, more employees should be able to work remotely at least part-time. I also think that as some people retire, filling those positions may not happen. I’m also concerned about rushing our employees back to work until we get the “all-clear” signal from the State. If we put our employees’ safety and health at risk, we risk the very operations that support our Cook County residents in their daily lives.
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 storm water?
Yes, and yes. We have paved over much of our landscape so that it is not able to act as a sponge, soaking up floodwater before it damages our basements, floods our streets, and results in sewage overflows to the waterways we love. Not only do I support the use of MWRD property to absorb stormwater, I’ve helped push MWRD in that direction with my colleagues on the board. Over the past two years, I’ve led efforts to update MWRD’s Watershed Management Ordinance to reduce the impact of flooding, especially on downstream communities of color. I helped add “disproportionately impacted areas” as a priority, the first time the Ordinance has recognized this as an imperative. This past May, I also introduced a motion that passed unanimously to explore bringing “green infrastructure”—using nature to complement pipes, plants, and pumps to reduce flooding and improve water quality—to suburban Cook County schoolyards. Right now, our schoolyard green infrastructure only exists in the Chicago. We can do more to serve the most vulnerable communities among us.
5. Could the district play a role in monitoring wastewater for signs of disease outbreaks? Please explain.
Yes, it already is, and as commissioner, I support these efforts. MWRD is now submitting samples from its water reclamation plants to Stanford University to support sewerage surveillance funded by the National Science Foundation. MWRD has also partnered with Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois-Chicago. MWRD is monitoring wastewater inputs to understand where outbreaks might occur to help public health officials model COVID virus patterns. This includes gathering information that can be used to quantify the prevalence, hot spots, and early detection of COVID virus in the Chicago area.
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?
First, let’s make a distinction: I don’t blame frontline staff at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as many of my former colleagues in the agency are trying to do their jobs despite incessant political meddling. Instead, the responsibility for public health protection rollbacks falls squarely on the Trump Administration and its political appointees. Their rollback of public health protections is reckless, short-sighted, and to me, immoral. The purpose of government is to protect the public. Period.
MWRD is a public health agency. Its job is to protect us. Discharges of toxics and even other pollutants don’t just hurt us, our children, and our communities. They also put those businesses that try to do the right thing at an economic disadvantage. As an environmental attorney, I’ve spent much of my career going to court to enforce our clean water and clean air laws. Despite these rollbacks, MWRD takes its responsibility seriously and is continuing to make sure dischargers are complying with pollution permit limits. Over time, we should go beyond reducing pollution to inducing sustainability for the environment, economy, and equity, especially in our disproportionately impacted communities.
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 Plan for all municipalities?
We can’t engineer or build our way out of the flooding problem unless we can control the weather. So, I believe our tunnels, reservoirs, and water treatment plants are part of long-term plan for reduced flooding, but they are not the only components of a plan.
We have to use our landscape as part of the solution. Our land acts like a sponge, soaking up stormwater, but not if it’s continually covered over with concrete. My plan is to optimize land for flood reduction using tools like permeable pavement so our landscape can complement our hard engineering assets, like pipes, pumps, and pollution treatment plants. When I worked in the Obama Administration for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we published a “Green Long-Term Control Plan” to recognize that we have to use nature to supplement our hard infrastructure assets. Using landscapes to complement traditional infrastructure creates local jobs for maintenance that can’t be outsourced to other countries and training opportunities for workforce development.
8. How can the MWRD manage its land holdings better?
I have proposed a “Community Conservation Corps” to better use MWRD lands—MWRD is the second largest public landholder in Cook County following the Forest Preserve District. We should use our lands to reduce flooding AND help with the County’s food desert problem, wherein some communities don’t have ready access to healthy, affordable, organic food. So far, the idea is gaining support because we should be in the business of solving more than one problem at a time, especially with so many of our neighbors struggling right now.