Democratic candidate for MWRD commissioner: Debra Shore
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On Feb. 22, incumbent Debra Shore 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:
I’m Debra Shore, I’m a member of the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District currently serving my second term and running for a third. The big challenge we see in our region is the intense rainstorms we’ve been experiencing recently that I believe are a symptom of climate change and they cause widespread flooding and basement backups so how we address those is the challenge and how we can help Cook County become more resilient. One of the things I’ve been working on is to establish an independent inspector general at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District because it’s an agency that spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on construction contracts, its well run, we have a AAA bond rating, we got a pension reform bill passed, but an IG would provide additional oversight and it’s just a good government practice and that’s what my public service has been about.
The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates seeking nominations for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the Chicago area. Debra Shore 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: Most of the outfalls that discharge into the Chicago River within the city limits are owned by the city of Chicago, and responsibility for managing (and reducing) combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that are the source of much of the bacteria in the section near the Riverwalk lies with the city. We can identify the outfalls where discharges occur most often or with largest volume. I would like to see the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District work collaboratively with the City of Chicago to develop plans in those “sewersheds” to reduce combined sewer overflows. We may also be able to identify several outfalls where innovative end-of-pipe solutions might be tried. These are more likely to reduce trash than to affect bacteria, but they are still worth a try. We also need to know more about the deployment of skimmer boats – both those operated by the MWRD and by the City of Chicago – and their ability to capture ‘floatables’ during storm events.
I would like to see the public become better informed about conditions in the Chicago waterways, both because it is important for the public to know about our ongoing challenges regarding water quality, and because the public should know that enormous strides have been made toward improving water quality in the Chicago River and other area waterways. Information about conditions in the waterways is currently available from a number of sources, including the District’s own website. I do think the MWRD can and should be far more proactive in deploying social media and sending text alerts to those who wish to receive them whenever discharges occur from key outfalls in heavily used sections of the Chicago waterways. For businesses located along the river, recreational users and rowing clubs, this information is both useful and important.
Running for: Democratic nomination for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, 6-year term
Political/civic background: Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (December 2006 – present) Elected to a six-year term on the Board of Commissioners in 2006, re-elected in 2012. Responsibilities include setting policies and overseeing a $1.2 billion agency responsible for wastewater treatment and storm water management for Cook County, IL, serving the equivalent of 10 million people.
Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership (IWIL). President, 2015 – 2017. Board member 2012 – present. Member, Class of 2003.
Congregation Sukkat Shalom, Wilmette, Illinois. Board President, 2015 – 2017. Board Member, 2011 – 2017.
Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute. Board Chair, 2011-2014. Board Member 2009-2017.
Great Lakes Protection Fund. Board chair, 2016-2017. Board Member, 2009 – present.
Independent Voters of Illinois – Independent Precinct Organization/IVI-IPO (2004 – 2005)
University of Chicago Women’s Board (1999 — present)
Friends of the Forest Preserves, Board Member (1998 — 2006)
President Stroger’s Community Advisory Council on Land Management, Cook County (February 1997 – December 2006)
Awards and Honors: Outstanding Commitment as Public Official, Office of Illinois State Treasurer, 2017
Outstanding Elected Woman Elected Official, Clerk of Circuit Court of Cook County, 2015
Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, 2014
Public Officials Award, Water Environment Federation, 2013
Public Official Award, Illinois Water Environment Federation, 2013
Tree of Life Award, Jewish National Fund, 2010
Friend of Keep Chicago Beautiful, 2008
Occupation: Commissioner, MWRD
Education: Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, Executive Education. Awarded a certificate of completion for the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, July 2008.
Master of Fine Arts, Creative Writing, Columbia College, Chicago June 1996
Master of Liberal Arts, Johns Hopkins University, 1976
Bachelor of Arts, Philosophy and Visual Arts, Phi Beta Kappa, Goucher College, 1974
Campaign website: debrashore.org
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: Ideally, water needs to be understood and managed as one ecosystem, not separated into silos called drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater. The US Water Alliance is promoting an approach called “One Water”, which holds that all water should be managed in a sustainable, inclusive, integrated way. The MWRD has authority over two of the three parts of Cook County’s water ecosystem, namely wastewater and stormwater, and it definitely should be working closely with municipalities that supply drinking water, including Chicago. We should not underestimate the complexities involved in trying to make the One Water approach a reality here in the Chicago area, but the potential benefits of the approach make it a worthwhile endeavor. At the very least, we can start by working to develop a better understanding of each agency’s environmental responsibilities. (MWRD gets calls from other agencies because they don’t know who is responsible for cleanups, for example.) MWRD can offer technical assistance and other resources to smaller municipalities to assist them in meeting regional goals for water quality; with the City of Chicago, MWRD can work as a partner in rethinking the Chicago area’s water future.
There are a number of innovations at other utilities that should be considered for implementation here in the Chicago region. As noted before, MWRD needs to promote stormwater plans for both watersheds and “sewersheds” to improve water quality and address runoff into the Chicago area waterways. The Front Yard Initiative developed by the Urban Conservancy in New Orleans, for instance, is an incentive program that reimburses eligible homeowners $2.50 per square foot of paving removed — up to 500 square feet — for a maximum of $1,250. This reduces runoff, allows groundwater recharge, improves resiliency, and has a host of other benefits. When we reduce the amount of stormwater and wastewater sent to MWRD treatment plants through conservation measures, the plants have a longer life, fewer chemicals are used for treatment, and less energy is consumed.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has adopted a number of innovative and collaborative programs, especially around reuse of water and community benefits for construction projects. SFPUC works with local non-profits, for instance, to hire and train teenagers during the summer to restore habitat upstream from the city’s water supply to enhance water quality and protect water sources. SFPUC also has a grant program with nonprofits and/or social enterprises to provide workforce development and training opportunities for residents in certain neighborhoods. The program’s goal? To support the resiliency in parts of the community by advancing the SFPUC’s environmental justice policy and creating pathways to high quality jobs for individuals facing barriers to employment. I’d like to see MWRD explore ways to engage youth and ensure community benefits from the stormwater programs throughout the District.
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: As an avowed environmentalist and strong proponent of cleaning up the Chicago Area Waterways (CAWS), I am certainly troubled by contamination on land or in our waterways. The MWRD has provisions in its leases requiring remediation by the tenant of any degradation to District land and has required substantial cleanups at some sites from prior tenants. The MWRD should continue its already strong monitoring process, including periodic site checks and reporting requirements. However, I will recommend that the District conducts an audit of its own monitoring program to make sure staff are doing their jobs correctly.
Illegal dumping is the cause of some of the instances of pollution that have been found. Four potential remedies come to mind: (1) increase penalties for illegal dumping, especially dumping materials determined to cause considerable harm to the waterways and ecosystems; (2) create incentives for sharing information that leads to the identification of illegal dumpers; (3) ensure waterfront properties are secure, and add fences where needed; (4) improve access to waterways –more access points mean more members of the public, and fewer opportunities to dump illegally. People may also be less likely to dump in an area that’s recognized as an amenity.
Also, the MWRD has worked closely with Illinois EPA to ensure clean-ups of any known spills.
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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: Though the Board of Commissioners has not yet voted on the changes proposed for the Watershed Management Ordinance, I do support them. The proposed changes ease the regulatory burden on developers in very select circumstances, but also add provisions to ensure the environment will be protected. I am reassured that offsite volume control will be very limited initially, allowing the MWRD and NGOs to evaluate its efficacy. I would have included more provisions requiring transparency from developers who pursue offsite storage, which is why I requested annual reports from staff with information about requested variances. (MWRD’s executive director said those reports could be provided).
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: New members of the Board of Commissioners rarely have sufficient knowledge about the District’s corporate purpose or operations, unless they have served as District employees prior to taking office. The District has an orientation program for new members of the Board, but it can and should be expanded and improved. I do believe the Board is properly informed on issues that come before it and Board members actively seek answers to questions when they have them. The Board has become much more engaged and asks many more questions than a decade ago (and this is a good thing).
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: I completely agree with you that reversals during storms that discharge untreated sewage mixed with stormwater to Lake Michigan are to be avoided if possible. Chicago and Cook County have experienced more intense rain events that are symptoms of climate change. As a commissioner, I support deployment of a variety of techniques – currently being tested in a demonstration project on 40 homes in parts of three Chicago wards – to capture rain where it falls and keep it out of the sewers altogether or slow the flow into the sewers giving them more capacity to handle rain. These techniques include installation of overhead sewers and check valves as well as green infrastructure such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, bioswales, and cisterns. The District is also exploring reconfiguring existing cisterns – such as a 300,000 gallon one at a CHA complex – and even a large abandoned underground water main to capture and hold stormwater runoff and using sensors installed in the sewer system to better manage existing infrastructure. I support all these initiatives.
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: To make the Chicago region more resilient and able to respond better to climate change, we need to peel back some of the concrete skin laid over the landscape using green infrastructure as well as endeavoring to change our habits so that we learn not to run dishwashers or washing machines during rainstorms. The District can play a role in such culture change by attempting to educate the public and deploy social media during rain events. At the same time, we also have to manage expectations: the worry is that people will say, “I didn’t run my dishwasher and I still got water in my basement” which will undoubtedly happen, given the intensity and size of some of these storms.
I believe we need to do everything possible to reduce combined sewer overflows: maximizing the capacity of the tunnel and reservoirs, but also looking at a distributed network of rain capture systems — such as cisterns and redesigned detention basins — to capture water where it falls and keep it out of the sewers. In the final analysis, the “solution” is likely to be not a single solution but the implementation of a variety of different solutions at a variety of different levels – regional, municipal, neighborhood, and at the level of the individual homeowner.
QUESTION: What more should the MWRD be doing to prevent invasive species from moving into and through Chicago area waterways?
ANSWER: Through the Illinois delegation in Congress, the MWRD has been advocating strongly for federal funding for the Brandon Road Project to ensure it gets done on or ahead of schedule. This was one of the recommendations from the Army Corps of Engineers’ Great Lakes Mississippi River Inter Basin Study report (GLMRIS). The MWRD is urging the Corps and others to continue to explore other options presented in the GLMRIS report and to support a range of studies of other new technologies and strategies to halt passage of invasive species in the Chicago area waterways.
MWRD must continue to push the Corps to monitor the efficacy of the existing electric barriers and make improvements. Finally, I believe MWRD should encourage state support of businesses harvesting Asian Carp and other invasive species in the Illinois River and its tributaries. There are a number of Illinois based businesses harvesting Asian Carp for pet food and for export. Illinois should also explore mobile harvesting units in trailers that can be moved along the waterways as has been done with other species in Kentucky.
QUESTION: What do you see as the MWRD’s role in controlling litter in our waterways?
ANSWER: The MWRD purchased and has deployed two skimmer boats to pick up debris and litter in the Chicago waterways, especially in response to combined sewer overflows. We have learned that much of the litter in the Chicago River is windblown off streets or tossed off bridges or the Riverwalk itself. My office has received a number of calls from the office of Alderman Brendan Reilly, for example, inquiring about litter on the banks of the river below Montgomery Ward Park. We discovered that the Chicago Park District owns the land, and is thus responsible for litter collection. Often the City of Chicago has pointed towards the MWRD as the responsible agency, when it is not. I have asked David St. Pierre, the MWRD’s executive director, whether the District might convene a summit of all affected agencies to devise a plan to address litter. Such a plan might include larger garbage cans at some riverfront sites, more frequent collections, identifying areas of the waterways where debris tends to pool and sending skimmer boats there more frequently, experimenting with end-of-pipe collection systems at some outfalls, and so on. I know that the District wants to be a good neighbor up and down the length of the Chicago waterways and I support efforts to do so.