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Terrence O’Brien, longtime Metropolitan Water Reclamation District chief, dead at 64

The agency named its Skokie wastewater-treatment plant for him. A longtime softeball player and supporter, he also was inducted into the Chicago 16 Inch Softball Hall of Fame.

A Chicago native, Terrence O’Brien dedicated a third of his life to working on improving the regions’s water environment, serving four six-year terms as commissioner of the MWRD.
Sun-Times Media

Terrence O’Brien, the former longtime president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago who once ran for Cook County Board president, died Sunday after a lengthy illness, the agency said. He was 64.

A Chicago native, Mr. O’Brien dedicated a third of his life to working to improve the region’s water environment, serving on the board of commissioners for 24 years, 16 as president.

He followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, becoming the third-generation O’Brien to work at the agency’s Skokie sewage-treatment facility at 3500 W. Howard St., which was renamed in his honor in 2012.

Terrence O’Brien, who died Sunday, dedicated a third of his life to working on improving the regions’s water environment.

As the head of the water reclamation district, Mr. O’Brien was in charge of the agency responsible for every drop of water that goes down a drain or into a sewer in the 883.5 square miles of Chicago and 125 neighboring communities.

Under his watch, much of the agency’s focus was on the decades-long plan Deep Tunnel project, also known as the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan or TARP, to build a series of tunnels and reservoirs to keep rain and wastewater out of waterways and basements.

The relatively obscure government agency — which was created in 1889 as the Sanitary District of Chicago — also treats wastewater at seven Chicago-area plants.

Mr. O’Brien successfully lobbied for millions in federal funding for the megaproject and in 2004 helped win the passage of state legislation that gave the district the responsibility to address flooding issues throughout Cook County.

He also instituted the (800) 332-DUMP pollution hotline for citizens to report illegal dumping of materials into sewers and waterways.

During his tenure as board president — a part-time position — the agency had a budget that exceeded $1 billion and employed more than 2,100 workers.

Mr. O’Brien tested his political fortunes in 2010 as a Democratic candidate in an unsuccessful bid to unseat then-Cook County Board President Todd Stroger. Toni Preckwinkle, who currently holds the position, won that election.

Mr. O’Brien retired in 2012, opening a seat on the board that was later filled by former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew Patrick Daley Thompson.

This is a file photo of MWRD president Terrence O’Brien, a Democratic candidate for Cook County Board president, voting at County building on the first day of early voting in 2010.
Sun-Times Media

Kari K. Steele, the president of the water reclamation district board, said in a written statement: “It was President O’Brien’s leadership and principles that carved a path for all of us to protect public health and our water environment and provide excellent, innovative and reliable service that taxpayers across Cook County deserve.”

A graduate of Loyola Academy and John Carroll University, Mr. O’Brien was born and raised in Rogers Park and lived in Edgebrook. He worked for consulting firms managing engineering projects to protect the environment. In 2016, he founded the O’Brien Network, LLC, which offered business development, governmental relations, consulting and strategic services.

He also was a longtime 16-inch softball player and was inducted into the Chicago 16 Inch Softball Hall of Fame in 2006. He gave park districts leases of water reclamation district property for softball fields and arranged the transfer of Thillens Stadium — the iconic home to amateur softball and baseball at Devon Avenue along the North Shore Channel — to the Chicago Park District.

Mr. O’Brien is survived by his wife Julie and children Kevin, Therese and Patrick.

Details on memorial services weren’t immediately available.