Chicago's Water Leaders

April 2, 2018

About the author: Clare Pierson is associate editor for Water & Wastes Digest. Pierson can be reached at 847.391.1012 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Terry O'Brien, president

Clare Pierson: What legislative goals or policies are you pursuing in regard to funding, regulations or any other pertinent issues that impact the MWRD?

Terry O’Brien: From the funding aspect, we’re constantly pursuing funding from Washington, D.C., for the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP). This year we’re in the president’s budget for $34 million for 2009. For 2008, it was $33.4 million. About twice per year, we go to Washington to meet with our congressional delegation and the Army Corp of Engineers, who are the other participating members of the reservoir part of this project.

A policy I pursued was when I first became president in 1997, the actual storm water management was that of the Cook County Board. I met with then-president John Stroger and told him that we would be interested in taking over that responsibility. We were already kind of handling storm water ad-hoc but could not raise revenue for storm water management. We worked for seven years to try to get that passed in Springfield, Ill., and it passed in November 2004.

Pierson: Which phase of the TARP plan is currently ongoing, and when is it scheduled to be complete?

O’Brien: We’re in the second phase. What is presently complete is 109 miles of tunnel. The last nine miles went online in May 2006. We have one of our three major reservoirs online near O’Hare airport, which went online in October 1998. That reservoir has the capacity of 350 million gal. We have the Thornton and Cook reservoirs that are currently under construction. Thornton will have a capacity of 8 billion gal and will go online in 2014. Cook will go online around the year 2023 and have a capacity of 10.5 billion gal.

The total storage capacity of the tunnels and reservoirs combined will be about 21 billion gal.

Pierson: Across the country, utilities are facing decaying infrastructure. Is Chicago experiencing this as well, and are there plans to repair or rebuild? If so, do you see tax increases or raising water prices as the inevitable solution to meeting these needs?

O’Brien: We’re pretty good around here with regards to maintaining our facilities. We’ve got a new 35-year upgrade program for our older treatment facilities. We’re going to have to look at providing the revenue to make changes that are needed to keep up with the changing regulations in regards to treating wastewater—whether it is nutrient removal, nitrate removal or phosphorus removal.

With this plan, we will deal with maintaining current infrastructure and bringing new technologies in to make it more cost-effective and efficient to treat wastewater. In the next 10 years, we expect to spend $2 billion on improvements. Our money comes from bonding authority and taxpayer dollars. For the 35-year upgrade program, we may have to raise the money in our bonding authority and also get some relief from tax caps.

Pierson: Please tell us about the award you will receive at WEFTEC. Why do you think Chicago is a good city to represent WEF and host WEFTEC?

O’Brien: I’m receiving the Public Officials Award. Myself and the mayor from Boston are the candidates to receive the award this year.

Chicago is right on one of the Great Lakes, which represents 95% of the freshwater supply in the U.S. and 20% of the world’s freshwater supply. The MWRD has always been in the forefront of trying new technologies and finding new technologies to treat wastewater. We’ve never done anything small. Every task we’ve undertaken has been on a large scale. This is where we reversed the Chicago River—an engineering feat in itself—in the 1900s.

We get people from all over the world to visit our operations to see how we deal with treating wastewater and how we’ve implemented TARP. A lot of people look to us as the leaders in the wastewater treatment industry and copy our technology throughout the nation and internationally as well.

Terry O’Brien is president of the MWRD of Greater Chicago. O’Brien can be reached at 312.751.5700 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Richard Lanyon, superintendent

Clare Pierson: Please provide some basic information about the MWRD—how many people and the area it serves, how many plants there are and the main technologies it uses to treat wastewater.

Richard Lanyon: We serve about 5 million people, over 90% of Cook County; the city of Chicago and 125 suburban municipalities are in our service area. We treat about 1.4 billion gal of wastewater each day. We derive most of our revenues from real-estate and property taxes. Our budget this year is $1.4 billion. We also provide storm water management for our area. We have seven of our own plants that we operate.

Our plants are based on activated sludge treatment. We provide primary and secondary treatment. Three plants in the northwest part of the county provide advanced treatment of wastewater, including filtration and disinfection, which discharge 100 million gal per day into general use waters. And of course, the Stickney plant is about the biggest wastewater treatment plant in the world.

Pierson: The MWRD offers a rain barrel purchasing program for district residents—how did this idea come about and is it popular?

Lanyon: The idea came about because the city of Chicago was doing it—they had one before we did—and suburban communities were doing it also. Because of our storm water management responsibilities, we decided to also offer rain barrels for purchase at a discount for customers. It has been a tremendously popular program.

Pierson: Please talk about the Environmental Management Program for biosolids. What is it, what kind of progress is it making and how does this program benefit the environment directly?

Lanyon: There’s a program called the National Biosolids Partnership program, jointly sponsored by the U.S. EPA, WEF and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. This program was launched to encourage municipalities to develop a similar environmental system for their biosolids program because there’s always controversy about the utilization of biosolids. The program has identified 17 critical elements that must be met. The agency must document all of its procedures, goals, objectives, policies, etc., train its personnel and finally be audited by an independent third party.

We started working on this several years ago and just this past spring, we had our third-party audit and were certified. We are the 22nd agency in the country that has achieved this certification.

Close to 50% of the biosolids from the MWRD goes to farmland applications in northeastern Illinois. Farmers sign up for this program; it is free for them and it replaces their need for fertilizers. It is a very popular program.

The rest of the biosolids goes to local landfills for daily cover. We also have local agreements with park districts and golf courses where our biosolids are used as an annual top dressing instead of fertilizer applications.

Pierson: What are some of the innovative or “green” techniques the MWRD uses to deal with storm water and wastewater?

Lanyon: While making biosolids from sludge, we use digesters, which can erase methane gas. So, we reuse much of the methane gas for energy in our treatment plants, which replaces electrical energy. We are also going to be developing some solar energy projects for preheating water from boilers.

We have converted about 50 acres of turf grass in our facilities to native prairie landscaping and the benefit of that is less maintenance because we don’t have to cut grass, fertilize the grass or use pesticides, and it increases biodiversity. Native plants have a deep root structure that will infiltrate rainwater better than manicured lawns, and it’s a good example of what people can do to be good land stewards.

We are constructing different types of permeable pavement at the Stickney plant where we’ll have a side-by-side test of the effectiveness of each and we’ll develop, for our own use, criteria for our paving products. This will reduce runoff.

Pierson: Describe the pollution patrol programs you have in place for the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Why are these important and how are they effective?

Lanyon: We have two pollution control boats that are used to service water quality monitors along the waterway. Our water quality management program is quite comprehensive and one of the elements of that program is to have continuous monitors installed along the waterways. They are serviced on a weekly basis by the boats.

They also do sampling runs down the Illinois River three times per year and we conduct tours of the waterways with these boats, mostly for employees. When the boats are on the waterways for regular duties, they are observing trash or discharge in the waterways and identifying those for enforcement action.

Pierson: Why is Chicago a good host city for WEFTEC.08? What kind of role will the MWRD play at the WEFTEC show?

Lanyon: Chicago is a good host city because it’s centrally located. We have an excellent convention center, a wonderful array of hotels and downtown Chicago is so vibrant for people who come to visit. Plus, for the people in water and wastewater, there is a lot to see here. The MWRD is a good example of cost-effective, well-managed public service for wastewater treatment.

Many of our employees are involved in different aspects of getting the show together. We will have tours at some of our facilities for WEFTEC participants. On Saturday, I am speaking at a workshop on storm water management and green technologies. In the afternoon, the workshop participants will tour the North Side plant, where we have the native prairie landscaping and some rain gardens.

I am speaking at sessions on utility financing, information technologies and strategic planning. I am also speaking about the MWRD and its programs. A number of our staff members are presenting papers at other technical sessions. We are also having a reception for the National Biosolids Partnership.

Richard Lanyon is superintendent of the MWRD of Greater Chicago. Lanyon can be reached at 312.751.7900 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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About the Author

Clare Pierson

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